August 15, 2022

Victim’s Family Appears Amid Rage at Tabloids

It had taken less than 10 days for the anger that swept Britain over the story of Milly Dowler’s cellphone to build into the political earthquake that forced Mr. Murdoch, the 80-year-old tycoon, to abandon the latest, and what could be the last, of his great business coups — an attempt to acquire the rest of British Sky Broadcasting for the News Corporation, the corporate giant that makes Mr. Murdoch one of the world’s most powerful news media figures.

The Dowlers had been shielded, until Wednesday, by their lawyer, Mark Lewis. He has fielded a frenzy of media questions since the news broke last week that, according to the police, a Murdoch-owned tabloid, The News of the World, had hacked into the voice-mail messages of the 13-year-old Milly after she was abducted in 2002 and while her family waited for some sign that she was still alive.

That sign came, the family thought, when the police told them that some of the messages they had left on the cellphone that Milly was carrying had been deleted. In reality, the police said, the messages were erased at the newspaper’s behest, to make room for more messages that could be hacked to embellish articles on her disappearance. Ms. Dowler was later found murdered.

In the years since, a faltering police investigation pointed to the Dowler case as only one of scores, possibly thousands, of cases in which ruthless newspapers, mainly The News of the World, have been accused of engaging in phone hacking in their relentless pursuit of scoops — as well as other covert newsroom tactics that may have included identity theft and bribery of police officers.

But now, the Dowlers were in the eye of the nation, greeted at 10 Downing Street by Prime Minister David Cameron.

They had been invited earlier for a meeting with the opposition leader, Ed Miliband, and welcomed as honored guests in the visitors’ gallery at the House of Commons. They became witnesses to the day when the cascading accusations about wrongdoing by newspapers in Mr. Murdoch’s British stable brought not only the withdrawal of his $12 billion bid for British Sky Broadcasting, but also what many politicians hailed, perhaps without too much overstatement, as the day when the country’s long-skewed democratic balance began to be restored.

On the Downing Street pavement, Mr. Lewis, speaking to a news media throng, said that after what had been “an earth-shattering week for everybody,” the family was pleased with the withdrawal of the British Sky Broadcasting bid. It demonstrated, the family’s lawyer said, that “however big an organization is,” it could be held to account in a society under law. “Politicians and the public,” he said, “are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

The words could have been the theme for what was happening 500 yards away in the House of Commons, where something not witnessed in decades was happening. In recent times, the 700-year-old chamber has been mired in conflict and embarrassment over an expenses scandal that ended the careers of dozens of lawmakers in the prelude to last year’s general election.

But Mr. Murdoch’s abandonment of the takeover in the face of political pressure — in particular, the united will of an outraged House of Commons — generated a sense of something like a liberation from Britain’s rampaging tabloids. The lawmakers were celebrating having curbed, at least for now, the influence of editors and reporters who had become something of a parallel power with little accountability — even if the lawmakers themselves sometimes empowered the tabloids by seeking their support.

Mr. Cameron described the end of the BSkyB bid as “a victory for the good, decent people of Britain.” But he also sought to halt the slump in his own fortunes by trying to explain, once again, why he had hired as his chief spokesman Andy Coulson, who was the editor of The News of the World when, the police say, much of the phone hacking and at least some of the bribery appears to have taken place.

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