Criminal? Scandalous? Sick? A simple guide to a very messy affair

With so many sensational revelations, it's easy to lose track. Martin Hickman and Cahal Milmo isolate the essential facts

Hacking Q&A

What is meant by 'hacking'?

A private investigator working for the News of the World was jailed in 2007 for illegally accessing the mobile phone messages of three royal aides and five public figures. Glenn Mulcaire did this by calling a mobile phone while in use by its owner and inputting the code to access the voicemail inbox. Sometimes he used the manufacturer's default PIN number, ie 4444, or he conned it out of unwitting phone companies.

Is this just about hacking?

No. The scandal now engulfing the press has spread to other illicit newsgathering techniques, such as blagging, bugging and pinging, etc (see glossary, below). Hacking is often used as a catch-all phrase for these techniques.

What about bribery?

Emails passed by News International to Scotland Yard indicate that several Metropolitan Police officers were receiving payments for passing on tips about who they had arrested or for accessing the Police National Computer. Corrupt officials in the Inland Revenue, DVLA and phone companies are thought to have been bribed too.

Are all these abuses illegal?

They are likely to be illegal, but it depends on the activity and the circumstances. There is no public interest defence to phone hacking under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, nor to hacking computers under the Computer Misuse Act. But there could be a public-interest argument over gaining information under the Data Protection Act. Blagging is obtaining information by deception and could be considered fraud. The Crown Prosecution Service has to weigh up whether a prosecution is in the public interest. There is also a public interest defence under common law on privacy.

Were these abuses limited to 'The News of the World'?

No. A raid on the private investigator Steve Whittamore in 2003 unearthed records of requests made by newspaper and magazine journalists for 13,343 different pieces of information. The Information Commissioner's Office reckoned most of the data was obtained illegally by blagging, bribery etc. The private investigator Johnathan Rees, whose techniques are said to have included commissioned burglaries and computer viruses, is known to have worked for the News of the World and Mirror Group titles. So far the hard evidence incriminates the NOTW, but after Gordon Brown's disclosures on Monday two other News International titles, The Sun and The Sunday Times, have been dragged into the row. The Sun said it obtained its story about Mr Brown's son Fraser having cystic fibrosis legitimately, while The Sunday Times admitted it had used subterfuge, but said it was legal and in the public interest. Many newspapers are said to have stopped using private detectives after Mulcaire was jailed in January 2007.

So why is only News International in meltdown?

There is vast evidence of wrongdoing at News International; its scale is mindboggling. Police seized 11,000 pages of notes from Mulcaire in August 2006. We now know that these contained the phone numbers or names of almost 4,000 likely victims. They range from actors such as Sienna Miller to the tycoon Sir Richard Branson to senior politicians such as Mr Brown. Most devastatingly for News International, they also allegedly include the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the families of other crime victims. The Dowler case caused public revulsion because, it was claimed, messages were deleted from her inbox, leading family and police to believe she may be alive, when she was almost certainly dead. News International journalists are also said to have bribed police officers, including a member of the Royal Protection Squad, said to have been selling personal information about the Queen.

Is there much more to come?

There is likely to be much worse to come. Rebekah Brooks, NI's chief executive, said so to staff at the News of the World last week, as she explained why the company was closing the title.

Why has it taken so long for this to come out?

The Metropolitan Police carried out a strangely limited investigation in 2006 which led to only two prosecutions, that of Mulcaire and the NOTW's royal editor Clive Goodman. News International executives repeatedly insisted there was no evidence of the wrongdoing extending beyond one "rogue" reporter, despite an internal report in 2007 having evidence that the practices were more widespread. There are suspicions that both the Met and politicians were too worried about the powerful newspaper group to open a new inquiry. The rising pressure from press reporting and civil cases brought by victims forced the opening of Operation Weeting in January 2011.

Couldn't The Press's own regulator have prevented abuses?

No. The Press Complaints Commission is not fit for purpose, with inadequate investigatory powers and soft sanctions.

Where is it all going to end?

This could go on for a long, long, time. Think of all the intrusive stories about celebrities and public figures that have been published over the past 20 years, and ask yourself how they were obtained. Think, too, of all the private investigators who were able to earn livings from the trade in personal information. The new police investigations, Weeting into hacking and Elveden into Met corruption, and the promised public inquiries into hacking and press standards, are likely to keep this story going for at least two years.

Are all journalists implicated?

No. There have been no suggestions of impropriety against The Independent, Independent on Sunday, Guardian or the Financial Times.

What are the implications for the Murdoch empire?

Grim. Rupert Murdoch's reputation is tarnished. News Corp investors may depose the 80-year-old or force him to sell off his British papers.

What are the implications for the British media as a whole?

The Government will introduce tougher new regulation. This is likely to raise standards but could hinder the free press. It's a difficult balancing act, but the case for action is unanswerable.

Glossary: Hacking, pinging, blagging... what it all means


Phone hacking is accessing a mobile phone's voicemail inbox. This allows private investigators and tabloid journalists to eavesdrop messages left for a target by friends, family, lovers and so on, alerting them to extra-marital affairs, new relationships, rows, new jobs, illnesses, grief, and an almost infinite host of other newsworthy material. The messages can be given to reporters as leads to "stand up" stories through legitimate means, such as phoning the target or their representatives, or be used to verify partially stood up stories. Computers can be hacked by sending an innocuous-looking email hiding a Trojan virus. Once inside the host computer, the virus relays its entire contents – everything from flirtatious emails to medical problems to financial details. Viruses can create a mirror of the target's computer on another computer, relaying every tap of their keyboard in real time.


Blagging is an attempt to con information out of unsuspecting bank clerks, phone company employees and other information-holders. Typically the "blagger" is a respectable-sounding actor who claims to have good reason for seeking out information. Sometimes they pretend to be calling from inside an organisation, such as "Darren Smith from customer services", and use passwords obtained by bribing corrupt employees to convince the unwitting information-holder to give out phone numbers, bank account numbers, etc. Blagging is low-tech but highly skilled.


Police and spies can identify an individual's whereabouts, typically terrorists, by triangulating their signal from mobile phone base stations. Bribing police officers allows journalists to do the same for newsworthy targets, so that theycan be monitored and surveyed/photographed/confronted. Pinging is useful for identifying multiple pay-as-you-go mobile phones. Celebrities have up to 10 unregistered phones on the go at one time, but if you know one of the numbers, it's possible – by comparing all the thousands of phone numbers used in the mobile phone base stations through which the target moves – to hone down the other numbers. The same group of phones, always together: it's a giveaway.


Planting a tracker device on a car allows reporters to record its movements, potentially allowing the target to be followed and providing corroboration of his whereabouts. Say the newsdesk receives a tip that a footballer is having an affair. A tracker device planted on his Bentley at the training ground can identify the home of his mistress. The property can then be staked out by reporters, who can record the player entering and leaving.


Tabloid papers have long used bugs to record the indiscretions of public figures. A bug can be legal if the property owner agrees, as in the case of the former Conservative minister David Mellor, whose extra-marital affair was recorded with a landlord's connivance. It is claimed private detectives working for tabloids planted bugs in the homes of targets after breaking into properties.