Hacking the mobile phones of British families who had lost loved ones to sexually depraved violent criminals, al-Qaeda inspired "terrorists" and Taliban insurgents proved the tipping point that led to the closure of Britain's most popular Sunday newspaper The News of the World, first published in London in 1843 and printed for the very last time on Sunday July 9, 2011.
To adopt a current media idiom, hacking these telephones at times of deep family grief became toxic for Rupert Murdoch's News International media empire because public support for precisely these victims sits at the heart of all Murdoch's political strategies. As a result, Murdoch has been forced to mount a damage limitation exercise on an unprecedented scale in an effort to protect his global media empire from the fallout.
Hugh Grant, a famous British actor turned investigative journalist, himself a victim of News International phone hacking was the first to acknowledge the extent to which the invasion of celebrities and politicians' privacy paled into insignificance compared to the unpardonable intrusion into the lives of the newly bereaved. Grant is absolutely right, but it is the fact that Sunday's News of the World – like its daily sister The Sun – sets itself up as the champion of these victims that hoisted it by its own petard.
In fact, the "Sarah's Law" campaign that named and shamed convicted paedophiles following the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne was spearheaded personally by Murdoch's now beleaguered lieutenant Rebekah Brooks. When confronted with criticism that the campaign encouraged vigilantism and threatened the rule of law she responded that she did not "regret the campaign for one minute". The same well attuned ear for the popular mood led The News of the World and The Sun to launch and promote the popular charity Help the Heroes that supports British troops.
Safe in the knowledge that Murdoch's News International phone hacking scandal will now be subject to forensic examination and extensive analysis, I will delve instead into the News of the World toolbox of dirty tricks to see what dark arts of the modern hacks' trade have been deployed against supporters of the Palestinian cause in recent years. In doing so I believe I will get closer to the heart of Murdoch politics – an important topic that will almost certainly remain untouched by any official inquiry into the criminality and immorality that has dramatically engulfed his media business in Britain.
I believe it is especially enlightening to reflect on the damage done to the reputation of Palestinian supporters by News International journalists in a week when David Cameron has been seriously compromised by his close association with the disgraced former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, yet has come under no pressure in parliament for keeping the prominent Palestinian peacemaker Sheikh Raed Salah in prison for no good cause. Moreover, it is no coincidence that the handful of British politicians who might once have voiced their concern over Sheikh Salah's ill-conceived arrest have been silent in the face of the ongoing power of uncritical pro-Israel politics nurtured by Murdoch's journalists over a long period.
As Samira Quraishy observes in an article for Middle East Monitor, this silence has been most conspicuous in the case of leading Liberal Democrats including party leader Nick Clegg, Sarah Teather, Ed Davey and Simon Hughes. Take the case of Sarah Teather – before she became a junior minister to the Murdoch-friendly neo-con cabinet hawk Michael Gove, she was an outspoken supporter of the Palestinians. Not only is her present silence on Sheikh Salah's plight a tribute to Murdoch's unbroken grip on government security policy, it is also a slap in the face for the many voters who put a tick in the box next to her name at the last general election in the mistaken belief that she would show consistency of conduct in or out of government.
True to form, The Sun adopted a tried and tested smear tactic by juxtaposing moral outrage aimed at Salah – an alleged "hate preacher" – entering Britain unchallenged with an unconnected story about Britain being hindered from deporting "hundreds of foreign killers, paedos and rapists" by a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. This follows the same successful formula adopted against a wide range of Palestinians and Palestinian supporters, especially Muslims, such as the academic Tariq Ramadan and Sheikh Yusef al Qaradawi. Whether low brow tabloids or their upmarket counterparts in the UK, US and Australia, all Murdoch newspapers have a consistent policy of targeting and denigrating active supporters of the Palestinian cause whenever and wherever they can.
Before considering two notable instances where the journalist's dirty tricks toolbox has been used against British campaigners for Palestinian justice I should first illustrate day to day News International reporting in this arena. Typically, just days after terrorists inspired or directed by al-Qaeda bombed London in July 2005, The Sun explained to its readers how this atrocity was linked to Palestinian resistance by seizing on a planned visit to Britain by the academic Tariq Ramadan to make its case. It is worth highlighting extracts from The Sun's front page to remind ourselves of the tabloid style deployed so effectively in support of a global strategy in support of Israel that masquerades as support for Britain and the West:
"Extremist Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who backs suicide bombings, is to address a London conference part-funded by police".
"…in our bomb-hit capital he is being given a platform to speak – while the victims of Britain's worst terror atrocity wait to be buried".
"The police must pull the plug without delay. And Home Secretary Charles Clarke must move swiftly to ban Professor Ramadan from our shores".
Tales of hacking and bribery
In addition to the targeting of specific "extremists" such as Ramadan, Murdoch's tabloids regularly stigmatise Muslim communities in Britain. According to research published last week on the sixth anniversary of the London bombings, the News of the World and The Sun have contributed to the creation of "suspect communities" through reporting that fails to distinguish between terrorists and the communities in which they live.
According to The Guardian's exemplary ongoing investigation, phone hacking and police bribery appear to have been relatively cheap and frequently used tools to elicit information for news stories of all kinds, whether political in nature or not. Interestingly, however, when The News of the World wanted to exert maximum pressure on its chosen targets, it would resort to a more invasive and pro-active tactic – the deployment of undercover investigators, most notably the notorious Fake Sheik, Mazheer Mahmood, in what are often described as "sting" operations.
Doubtless Mahmood's book Confessions of a Fake Sheik, published in 2008 by Harper Collins, is the least reliable kind of evidence – but it does at least provide some compelling if unwitting testimony about the political motivation and machinations behind his undercover deployment against two notable Palestinian supporters in the UK, former Labour Party and Respect Party MP George Galloway and Mohamed Ali, CEO of Islam Channel TV in London.
Mahmood ruefully admits failure in his sting operations against both Galloway and Ali. Characteristically, when he became fully appraised of the News of the World sting operation, Galloway exposed Mahmood in parliament as an "agent provocateur". Subsequently, it came as no surprise when Galloway joined the long list of phone hacking targets being offered large sums of money by News International in an attempt to silence them – an unlikely ambition in Galloway's case.
What Murdoch's tabloids sought to obscure was the reality on the ground. Their portrait of Galloway as an appeaser of terrorists was shown to be well wide of the mark in London, where he was twice attacked by al-Qaeda cheerleaders for successfully persuading young Muslims to channel their anger against British foreign policy in the Middle East into democratic politics. Not a story that fit with Murdoch's agenda.
Most telling, is the credence that Murdoch journalists gave to corrupt dictators – such as Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt – happily now deposed and discredited. Indications of Murdoch's personal interest in discrediting Mohamed Ali became apparent when considering the role of journalist Richard Kerbaj, who was transferred by Murdoch from The Australian to The Times in London – not least because of his contacts with corrupt security regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.
Suffice to say, Kerbaj supplemented Mahmood's dirty work on behalf of The News of the World with his own supposedly authoritative reporting for TheTimes. Much the same kind of synergy can be seen between Dean Godson's eloquent or "anti-Islamist" commentaries in The Times and Richard Littlejohn's belligerent versions of the same message the columns he wrote for The Sun.
In Ali's case, Mahmood was clearly briefed that his intended victim was a former "terrorist", ultimately on the discredited word of a corrupt dictator. Had the Fake Sheik succeeded in his sting against Ali, News of the World readers would doubtless have been treated to an account of Ali's "terrorism" that echoes Kerbaj's version – and is now wholly discredited.
Retaining dignity in the face of such provocation, Ali writing for Open Democracy, explains the unexpected and beneficial impact of the Arab Spring in his case:
The West talks about the human rights abuses and democratisation of the Middle East, and yet turned a blind eye to the repressive anti democratic methods used by Ben Ali [in Tunisa]. Western leaders supported him, believing him to be a staunch ally in the war on terrorism and against Islamist extremism.
In the circumstances, Ali, who as a young man was tortured by Ben Ali's regime, might have directed his words to Murdoch as well as to Western leaders.
On a lighter note, and again unwittingly, Mahmood's book reveals weaknesses in his tradecraft that might suggest he will now be seeking more conventional employment. More seriously, it was a similar failure of tradecraft by the corrupt investigator Glenn Mulcaire, employed by the News of the World, that led him to delete voicemail messages on a mobile phone belonging to murdered teenager Milly Dowler, and thereby leave an audit trail that would provide the trigger for the worst week in the history of Murdoch's global media empire.
It is therefore noteworthy that setting up elaborate sting operations against supporters of the Palestinians, such as Galloway and Ali, would not cause Rupert Murdoch to lose a minute's sleep – even today. To the contrary, it remains central to the political journalism he has nurtured.
Dr Robert Lambert is Co-Director of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter, Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews and author of Countering al-Qaeda in London which will be published by Hurst in September 2011.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.