Wiretapping for Moguls

July 13, 2011

Multiple Pages
Wiretapping for Moguls

The Guardian, a high-minded leftist broadsheet, had been campaigning for years against Rupert Murdoch’s populist London tabloids. In 2007, private detective Glenn Mulcaire and News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman went to jail for “hacking” into the voicemail accounts of aides to Princes William and Harry. Their eavesdropping had netted such stop-the-presses bombshells as Will’s appointment to see a knee surgeon.

It slowly emerged that News of the World gossip hounds had illegally accessed the voicemails of innumerable newsworthy names. Yet outside of diehards hoping to take down Murdoch, nobody much cared, because the British public likes reading off-message jots and tittles about the high and mighty.

On July 4, 2011, however, The Guardian finally dredged up something that outraged tabloid readers: In 2002, Mulcaire had hacked into a missing 13-year-old girl’s voicemail. Worried that her mailbox would fill up and accept no new messages, the News of the World team deleted some old ones. This gave false hope to the parents that their daughter was still alive and checking her messages.

This wasn’t some celebrity’s hypocrisies exposed. This was an ordinary private family abused. In the subsequent uproar, the worm turned. Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was arrested last Friday, and Murdoch shuttered the 167-year-old newspaper on Sunday.

“Mulcaire hacked voicemails to publish facts, while Pellicano taped phone calls to intimidate and silence.”

Not surprisingly, the British public has greatly enjoyed reading all about it. Britain’s ruling class, however, hopes this scandal will neuter Fleet Street’s feistiness in favor of more respectful American-style coverage.

In outline, the Murdoch brouhaha—powerful media figures are caught employing a private detective to wiretap—is strikingly similar to Hollywood’s 2002-2008 Anthony Pellicano scandal.

As you may recall (if only vaguely), numerous stars and moguls, such as Brad Grey, CEO of Paramount Pictures since 2005, paid sleazeball detective Pellicano to dig up—by any means necessary—dirt they could use against less-powerful people.

For example, when comedian Garry Shandling sued Grey—previously his agent and producer of Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show—for triple-dipping into their profits, Grey, working with veteran super-lawyer Bert Fields, reportedly had Pellicano spy on Shandling. (The neurotic comic genius has only recently emerged from the long depression that this may have exacerbated.) I could go on citing famous showbiz names incriminated, but the American public mostly hasn’t wanted to know.

The contrasting public reactions to these scandals demonstrate national differences. Nobody cares about Glenn Mulcaire; this scandal has always been intended to bring down Murdoch. In the Pellicano affair, the feds let the private dick take the rap for the moguls.

Moreover, Mulcaire hacked voicemails to publish facts, while Pellicano taped phone calls to intimidate and silence. Pellicano’s modus operandi is in tune with the times here. Our mainstream press routinely colludes with publicists practicing “access journalism.” In return for an interview, journalists agree not to ask impertinent questions or they’ll never work in this town again. A century ago, reporters tended to be cynical ne’er-do-wells. Today, journalists typically come from the same kind of nice families and nice colleges as the VIPs they gently cover.

American society has grown increasingly credulous. Our last three presidents have come to office remarkably unknown. In mid-February 2008, after 33 states had voted in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama’s campaign managers still didn’t even have a contingency plan for how to spin away Obama’s long relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

George W. Bush’s limitations had been quietly noticed over the years by numerous men of affairs who had worked with him due to his father’s eminence. Yet young George’s fecklessness wasn’t effectively communicated to the public.

I spent much of early 1992 in Arkansas, where locals would tell me that Governor Bill Clinton was a notorious horndog. Clinton was running, in that “Year of the Woman,” as a devout feminist. He feigned righteous shock at Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas. In 1992, I wrote an article predicting sexual-harassment charges against Clinton someday. (Paula Jones’s 1994 sexual-harassment lawsuit led to the president perjuring himself over his affair with Monica Lewinsky). Nobody would publish it.

The prestige press briefly showed interest in Gennifer Flowers’s account of her long affair with Clinton. But the fact that she sold her story to the National Enquirer tabloid for money (instead of giving it to them for free) biased them against her. When the Clinton campaign claimed her answering-machine tapes of the candidate had been “doctored,” the respectable media collectively decided to move on.

Oh, and who was the Clintons’ audio expert? Reports say it was Anthony Pellicano.


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