Will Britain's tabloid phone-hacking scandal sink Rupert Murdoch?

The Murdoch-owned News of the World is shutting down after 168 years. Here, a guide to the "nuclear" wiretapping controversy that sunk the paper

Rupert Murdoch's British tabloid News of the World will shut down on Sunday, after publishing for 168 years.
(Image credit: WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The British Sunday tabloid News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International, has been embroiled in a simmering scandal since 2007, when an editor and private eye went to jail for hacking into the voicemail inboxes of royal family employees. Since then, the list of phone-hacking victims has grown to include celebrities, soccer stars, and members of Parliament. This week, credible allegations emerged that News of the World paid a private eye to hack the voicemail of a missing 13-year-old girl who was later found murdered, and the scandal went "nuclear." Now, faced with an exodus of advertisers, the News of the World is publishing its final edition Sunday. Here, a brief guide to Murdoch's tabloid nightmare:

What is Murdoch's tabloid accused of?

On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that Scotland Yard has evidence that Glenn Mulcaire, the previously jailed News of the World phone-hacking private eye, had not only gained access to the cellphone voicemail of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002, but also erased some messages to clear inbox space for new voicemails he could intercept. The deleted messages led the family, and the police, to assume that the murdered girl was still alive. Since Tuesday, the News of the World has also been accused of hacking the phones of families of victims of the July 2005 subway and bus bombing in London, and soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention paying off Scotland Yard to turn a blind eye.

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Why did these revelations sink the 168-year-old newspaper?

As long as the phone-hacking targets were princes, politicians, and celebrities, "gossip-hungry readers might deplore the invasion of privacy but still feel that a little intrusion is the price of wealth and fame — wrong but not wicked," says William Underhill at The Daily Beast. Obviously, the rich and powerful victims cared, as did rival newspapers, says the BBC's Nick Robinson. But now that the targets are powerless, grieving families, the scandal is, for the first time, "engaging and horrifying readers, viewers, and voters." And the Dowler case is still fresh, since her killer was only convicted last month, after a media-saturated trial.

Have any heads rolled?

News of the World editor Colin Myler is obviously out of a job. But no top Murdoch executives have been fired... yet. Andy Coulson, who was editor of the tabloid during the royal staff hackings, resigned in 2007, but then became chief media adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron; he stepped down as Cameron's spokesman in January, amid new furor over the phone-hacking. But the editor during the Dowler hacking, Rebekah Brooks, is now CEO of News International. She's also a personal friend of Cameron, and a rising star in Murdoch's inner circle. On Wednesday, Murdoch rejected the growing calls for Brooks' resignation.

How badly will Murdoch get burned in this scandal?

"If Rupert Murdoch could be slain by a mere scandal, he would have been embalmed and entombed long ago," says Jack Shafer at Slate. But "I can't think of any jam that Murdoch has gotten into that's tighter than this one." Actually, this debacle "poses a significant threat to Murdoch's media empire," says Jeanine Poggi at The Street. There's the loss of his profitable tabloid, but more galling for him, the scandal threatens his all-but-completed purchase of British TV network BSkyB. That would be an "astonishing loss of face" for Murdoch, says Chris Hughes at Reuters Breakingviews. But given his "inexcusably weak" handling of the affair, he'll be lucky if that's the end of his troubles.

Sources: BBC News (2), Breakingviews, Daily Telegraph, Forbes, Foreign Policy, Guardian (2), Reuters, Slate, The Street, Vanity Fair (2)

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