- Associated Press - Friday, December 2, 2011

LONDON (AP) - Hacking into celebrity phones was just the tip of the iceberg.

Britain’s media ethics inquiry, set up in response to illegal eavesdropping by a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, has turned out to be a masterclass in skullduggery that has exposed the murky practices of the U.K.’s muckraking press.

This week, witnesses described how Murdoch’s company had wreaked havoc on their lives and those of their families, with reporters targeting critics for spying and negative coverage and sullying the name of an innocent man.

“We have a press that has just become frankly putrid in many of its elements,” Alastair Campbell, former tabloid journalist and longtime communications aide to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, told the tribunal this week.

Few would disagree after listening to the nationally televised testimony describing the excesses of a callous and sometimes criminal press.

The judge-led inquiry was set up after it emerged that Murdoch’s News of the World had for years illegally eavesdropped on the voicemail messages of celebrities, public figures and crime victims. The scandal forced Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid. A dozen Murdoch employees have been arrested in the case, which also cost the jobs of several of his top executives, two senior police officers and Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief.

The inquiry has put Murdoch’s empire on trial, as witnesses described their treatment at the hands of an organization they viewed as unassailably powerful, ruthless and feared.

Former child singing sensation Charlotte Church described how she was invited to perform at Murdoch’s wedding on a yacht in New York when she was 13. She said she was offered a 100,000 pound (roughly $160,000) payment, but was told if she waived the fee that Murdoch’s papers would look favorably on her.

Church, now 25, told the inquiry that she really wanted to take the money, but was told by her managers it would be worthwhile to give up the fee _ which would have been her highest payment ever then _ to cultivate Murdoch’s support.

She said she was told “that he was a very, very powerful man” who could do her career a world of good _ if he wanted to.

But any tabloid goodwill she earned was short-lived. Church said media scrutiny increased to unbearable levels as she entered her teens. As she approached her 16th birthday, she said Murdoch’s The Sun tabloid featured on its website a “countdown clock” timed to the day when she would be able to legally have sex _ an allegation the newspaper denies.

Later, a tabloid reported that Church was pregnant before she had even told her parents, news she felt had to come either from surveillance or phone hacking. On another occasion the News of the World reported on her father’s extramarital affair under the headline “Church’s three in a bed cocaine shock.” Church said her mother had attempted suicide partly as a result of this invasion of privacy.

Murdoch’s News International has denied Church’s version of events surrounding her performance at Murdoch’s wedding, and her agent at the time, Jonathan Shalit, said she was not offered a choice between a fee and good press.

He said Church was not offered a fee and performed for free, as she had done for Prince Charles and President Bill Clinton. But he said publicity from these appearances helped launch her career in the United States, which was his plan.

“When you sing for these people you get added benefits for your career,” he said.

Story Continues →