"It was the kind of place you get out of and you never want to go back again." That's how one former reporter describes the News of the World newsroom under editor Rebekah Brooks, the ferociously ambitious titian-haired executive who ran Britain's top-selling Sunday tabloid from 2000 to 2003.
Journalists who worked there in that period describe an industrialised operation of dubious information-gathering, reporters under intense pressure attempting to land exclusive stories by whatever means necessary, and a culture of fear, cynicism, gallows humour and fierce internal competition.
"We used to talk to career criminals all the time. They were our sources," says another former reporter from the paper who also worked for Murdoch's daily tabloid, the Sun. "It was a macho thing: 'My contact is scummier than your contact.' It was a case of: 'Mine's a murderer!' On the plus side, we always had a resident pet nutter around in case anything went wrong."
The 168-year-old paper published for the last time last Sunday after exposure of its widespread use of phone-hacking triggered a scandal that has engulfed Rupert Murdoch's UK newspaper group News International, its New York-based parent company News Corp, and Britain's political classes and police.
Brooks, one of two top Murdoch executives who resigned on Friday, has maintained she neither sanctioned nor knew about the phone hacking. The Guardian newspaper reported the paper's targets went beyond celebrities to include murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the bereaved relatives of dead soldiers. Murdoch has apologised personally to the Dowler family.
Four former employees of Britain's best-selling Sunday tabloid have told Reuters that Brooks' denials are simply not credible. They say people on the paper's newsdesk, the hub that directs news coverage, were regularly grilled about the top stories by Brooks and later by her successor Andy Coulson, who resigned over the phone-hacking scandal in 2007 and went on to become Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman.
"They went in and they were cross-examined for two hours every day. And it was all about the genesis of all the stories," the first ex-reporter, who worked at the paper for seven years, told Reuters.
The News of the World's reporting methods were first questioned when it published a story about an injury to Prince William's knee in 2005, prompting fears his aides' voicemail messages were being intercepted. The royal family complained to police. More than a year later, the paper's royal editor Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for six months for conspiracy to access phone messages.
Coulson, by then the newspaper's editor, resigned immediately, although like Brooks he has repeatedly denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. Until recently, the paper continued to maintain that the hacking was isolated to Goodman.
Former employees say that's hard to believe, not only because of the story approval process, but also because budgets were so tightly controlled that payments for such services would not have gone unnoticed.
"It's simply not conceivable that somebody who was editor wouldn't have known," says the journalist who spent seven years at the paper, covering general news.
Neither Brooks nor Coulson could be reached for comment, and News International declined comment for this story beyond saying: "There are numerous views from former employees and we are not going to counter each one."
Reuters is a competitor of Dow Jones Newswires, the financial news agency that News Corp acquired along with the Wall Street Journal in 2007.
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