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Undignified journalism

The unscrupulous sensationalism of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers rocks the UK government

The revelation that the British Sunday tabloid the News of the World intercepted voicemail messages left on the cellphone of a kidnapped child, whose murder became a huge national story in 2002, has led to an unusual and heated public debate on the practices used by a certain sector of the sensationalist press in the United Kingdom, which is largely controlled by Rupert Murdoch. On Wednesday Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to endure a rowdy session in the House of Commons, where he promised to launch an inquiry in order to get to the root of the matter.

With a print run of almost three million, the News of the World has for years epitomized - although it is not alone - a devious style of reporting which includes hacking into the private communications of a whole range of people, royals included, in the obsessive pursuit of an exclusive. Until very recently directors at Murdoch's News International have insisted that these methods were isolated episodes of malpractice carried out by certain unscrupulous reporters. But the exponential rise in the numbers of spying victims shows without any doubt that these methods were applied on a grand scale.

Journalistic sensationalism is nothing new. The Australian-born magnate, who is also the owner of eminently respectable publications, has proved himself to be a master of exploiting this type of reporting, taking advantage of both his close contacts with the political world and the weakness of the British press regulating body. In the Milly Dowler case, the murdered girl's voicemail had not only been hacked into by the weekly's journalists, but they had also periodically deleted its contents to make room for more messages. This gave the parents false hopes that their daughter was still alive and even added an extra element of confusion to the police investigation. Rebekah Brooks, then the News of the World's editor and now News International's chief UK executive, has unconvincingly claimed to be ignorant of the entire sordid affair.

As well as damaging the British press sector in general, the episode condemns Murdoch to a necessary clean-up job in his newspapers. Thursday's shock announcement that the News of the World is to close is an indication of how serious the scandal has become. It is also a threat for the Conservative leader Cameron, who until the beginning of this year had maintained as his press secretary Andy Coulson, who was forced to resign as editor of the News of the World in 2007 when the phone-hacking scandal first broke. Fresh allegations about malpractice during his time at the head of the Sunday newspaper saw him forced to abandon his job in Downing Street. How many more people will have to walk the plank before this case is finally resolved?

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