It has been, for the editors of Britain’s tabloid newspapers, something of a zombie apocalypse: After years of feeling hounded, harried, bugged, hacked, telephoto-stalked, garbage-raided and spied upon, the people who got roasted on the front page of the “red top” scandal sheets are finally getting their revenge.
And what a revenge it has been. The Leveson inquiry into tabloid phone-hacking, police-bribing and spying – named after judge Brian Leveson, its chairman – has become deadly not just for the News of the World, the scandal sheet that was forced to shut down this year amidst claims of spying on a vast scale, but also a number of currently existing newspapers.
Actor described a spying operation on his personal life of John le Carré proportions – involving multiple friends and lovers being intimidated by or put on the payrolls of tabloids, and full-time spies paid to follow many of his acquaintances.
“It’s like the Mafia,” said actor Steve Coogan, who described daily operations to rifle through his garbage, and ex-girlfriends having intimate conversations with him from the office of Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor who became Prime Minister David Cameron’s chief adviser, after they were allegedly paid to gather dirt.
“I had to crawl around on my hands and knees on the floor of my house to keep them from seeing me through the windows of my house in Scotland,” Sheryl Gascoigne, former wife of troubled soccer star Paul Gascoigne, said on Wednesday. She described tabloid paparazzi forcing her to run down the sidewalk while eight months pregnant: “Perhaps they were waiting for me to give birth on the pavement.”
By Wednesday, the inquiry was taking a visible toll: James Murdoch, son of tabloid magnate Rupert Murdoch and head of his father’s European media operations, his positions on the boards of directors of Britain’s major Murdoch papers, including the Times and the Sun.
While he remains chairman of the subsidiary News International, it means that for the first time since 1969 no member of the Murdoch family is involved in the running and oversight of the British papers – leading to fears that they may shut down another paper, such as the Sun.
That may have been because the parents of Madeleine McCann, the toddler who disappeared while on vacation in Portugal, described an ordeal of tabloid harassment and intimidation that lasted for years.
Hugh Grant may have been able to defend his impartiality by noting, on Monday, that he had been caught in a car with a prostitute once, and it hadn’t hurt his success (so therefore he wasn’t simply trying to rescue his reputation).
The parents of child murder victims, two of whom have appeared before, are another matter, and their testimony seemed to drain any last sympathy the public, the government or the British business community had for the Murdochs.