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ENG3003: Engineering Management Principles - British Phone Hacking | Ethics Case Study Assignment Help

July 31, 2017
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Question:Ethics Case Study

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Case Study Phone hacking, corruption and the closure of News of the World

Case Scenario

The closure of the News of the World (NoW) newspaper is exemplary of many of the issues discussed in Chapter 5. NoW was published by News Group Newspapers, part of News International, a subsidiary of Australian born Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

According to media reports, the paper was ultimately closed down because of illegal and clearly unethical phone hacking. Its closure raises questions about regulation of the press, ownership of the media, the role of the police, and relationships between journalists and politicians.

Using private investigators, NoW had been illegally tapping into voicemail messages ofabductees, murder victims, politicians (among them even former British prime minister Gordon Brown), and prominent celebrities (like soccer star Paul Gascoigne, and actors Sienna Miller and Hugh Grant), All this was done in search of an exclusive story.

In January 2007, NoW Royal Editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for several months after admitting that they had hacked into the voicemails of aides to the royal family. A senior police source at the time told rival newspaper The Guardian that evidence had been found that private investigators had hacked into literally thousands of phones. However, what is believed to have finally brought the paper down is its despicable hacking of the voice mails of murdered teenager Milly Dowler; Sarah Payne, the mother of a murdered eight year old girl; and the parents of murdered schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. There are also allegations that the voicemail messages of relatives of dead British soldiers’ were hacked, and that a police officer offered to sell the paper a book containing confidential details about the royal family and its staff.

How did NoW hack into voicemail accounts so easily? Because customers very rarely change four-digit PIN’s, private investigators and journalists could ring the number and, if the phone was not answered, the default number could be entered and messages accessed. Phone hacking is a grave matter, because it is highly illegal. Secondly, phone hacking is also unethical and is disdainful of an individual’s right to privacy. How would you like it if your mobile phone messages were hacked into?

One of the most disturbing features of this scandal was the role of the police. Allegations into phone hacking were first made to the London Metropolitan Police in 2006, who were subsequently criticised for treading too softly. In 2009, The Guardian claimed that NoW journalists had hacked into mobile phones of about 3000 politicians, sport stars and celebrities, but the police chose not to reopen their investigation. In July 2011, John Yates, assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, said he regretted the 2009 decision not to relaunch the investigation. This may have been wisdom with hindsight, as the Metropolitan Police had finally reopened their inquiry in January 2011. Ian Edmondson, an assistant editor, was subsequently sacked because emails relating to the hacking were allegedly found in the system at NoW.

Also in July 2011, senior police officers told a Parliamentary committee that News International had tried to subvert the original inquiry into voicemail hackings. At the same time, Paul Stephen, Metropolitan Police commissioner, resigned over criticism of his hiring of a former NoW executive, Neil Wallis, as an advisor. The Assistant Commissioner resigned the following day, as he had been responsible for checking the credentials of Wallis before he was employed. Aside from these resignations, apparently because senior policeman were seen to be close to the media, former NoW editors Andy Coulson and Clive Goodman; its current editor Rebekah Brooks; and several other journalists were arrested. Executives at Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, who were closely associated with Rebekah Brooks, were also arrested on suspicion of making unlawful payments to police officers, one of whom was detained on suspicion of corruption. Of even more concern than the close relationship between senior police officers and NoW was the claim that the police had not alerted all victims whose phones were targeted. Furthermore, it was alleged that emails surfaced showing that payments were made to police in return for information, and that these were allegedly sanctioned by Andy Coulson. Stephenson said before resigning that a small number of police officers allegedly received these payments and that, if it was true, they would be charged with crimes.

The consequences for News international have been severe. Rebekah Brooks resigned, and the NoW newspaper has been closed. Rupert Murdoch apologised for wrongdoing in national British press advertisements, and the paper has made significant compensation payouts to victims of phone hacking (including to celebrities and their families). News Corporation had planned to fully take over broadcaster BskyB, but later dropped its bid. Andy Coulson quit hisposition as an advisor to the British prime minster (Coulson had been editor when Mulcaire and Goodman were convicted). In addition, James Murdoch (Rupert Murdoch’s son) resigned from a number of his positions within the News International Company.

In 2012, the Parliamentary committee found that Rupert Murdoch was responsible for ‘wilful blindness’ to the culture of phone hacking, and that he is ’not a fit person’ to run an international company. Murdoch has acknowledged that the situation has resulted in serious damage to his reputation as a businessman, and he formally apologised to the inquiry, saying ‘ the buck stops with me. I failed. And I’m very sorry about that... It’s going to be a blot on my reputation for the rest of my life’. Rebekah Brooks, her husband (himself a former NoW editor) and six others were also formerly charged by the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to the phone hacking.

Following on from the inquiry in the United Kingdom, the federal government established an independent inquiry into the media in Australia. In the United States, the FBI has since been involved with investigating alleged phone hacking of 9/11 victims and their families.

Answer the following questions about the case study: -

  1. Which of the four views of ethical behaviour can best be applied to this case? Justify your answer.
  2. What rationalisations for this unethical behaviour would the editors, reporters, private investigators and police have given?
  3. What ‘social responsibility’ strategy did NoW try to implement when the scandal first broke, and how did this change as the scandal unfolded?
  4. How do you think whistleblowers at the newspaper and in the London Metropolitan Police might have been treated?
  5. This case really demonstrates how leaders need to be ethical models. In this regard, can you suggest how the police, politicians, and newspaper leaders should have behaved?

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Solution:Ethics Case Study

Executive Summary

This report is aimed at analysing the famous ‘British Phone Hacking Case’ where a newspaper named NoW illegally and unethically tapped into voicemail messages of several individuals in search of an exclusive story. Analysis of the case study looks into ethical aspects and highlights that the ‘moral rights’ view point is best suited. Further analysis of the case study reveals that whistleblowers at the newspaper and at the London Metropolitan Police Department might have been severely punished. Social responsibility strategies adopted by the newspaper have also been analysed along with presenting an account of ideal ethical behaviour that should have been exhibited.


The provided case study presents a classic account of unethical phone hacking and serves to raise several important questions about press regulation, role of police, ownership of media and relationships that exist between media and politicians. The case of NoW newspaper has been highlighted with special emphasis on the manner in which the newspaper hired private investigators so as to hack into voicemails of several individuals. These included politicians, associates of the royal family and parents of murder victims. Case study reports that these hackings were carried out in search of exclusive stories. Further, it has been reported that police officials did not act as required for a very long time and allowed media officials to carry on their highly unethical venture.

In line with the case study and relevant literature, the report seeks to present answers to some important ethical concerns that have been raised.

Views of Ethical Behaviour

With reference to facts presented by the case study, the ‘moral rights’ view of ethics is best applicable. In accordance with this view, behaviour is considered ethical in nature if it focuses on respecting and protecting fundamental rights of all individuals (Tait 2012). As suggested in teachings of Thomas Jefferson and John Locke, all individuals are entitled to basic fundamental rights such as life, liberty, privacy and fair treatment by the law. Individuals further possess a right to free consent which suggests that individuals should only be treated as they knowingly consent to be treated (Keeble & Mair 2012). Therefore, an action which serves to violate any of these fundamental rights would be considered as unethical. In an organisational context for example, the ‘moral rights’ view would support an action which protects employees and their right to freedom of speech and privacy (Miceli et al 2012).

Although this view of ethical behaviour protects individual rights, it does not guarantee that broader interests of the society would be protected. Providing freedom of speech to an individual for example might turn out hurtful for another group of individuals.

This view fits best in the provided case study as individual rights to privacy and liberty were clearly violated. The newspaper unethically hacked into private voicemail messages of several individuals including abductees, murder victims, prominent celebrities and politicians. Hackings were carried out with the help of private investigators and were not backed up by any legal justifications or authorities. This clearly goes against individual rights of privacy and liberty and exposed many private conversations merely for promotion of the newspaper’s own interests.

The right to free consent was also violated in this case. Individuals who were targeted were not warned about the same and had not consented to share their private information. The act was clearly highly unethical.

Role of the police might also be regarded as unethical in line with the ‘moral rights’ view of ethical behaviour. Police officials have a moral duty of providing for and protecting fundamental rights of individuals in the society. In this case however, police officials chose not to reopen their investigations thereby siding with the unethical actions of media personnel. Not only were the investigations not reopened, but a former NoW executive was hired by the Assistant Commissioner as an advisor. This further confirmed that the police would not advocate for protecting individual rights and would continue to side with the journalists. Evidence found much later also indicated that police officials accepted unlawful payments to not reopen investigations and thereby promote hackings into personal voicemail messages. Further, the police failed to alert all victims whose phones were being targeted and thus further simplified the task for NoW.

Acting in an ethical manner, police officials could have denied payments and taken ‘offering payments’ as an indicative of unethical behaviour.


The editors and reporters might have rationalised their act by suggesting that they had been trying to uncover the truth. It is possible that the motive behind several murders and abductions was still unclear at the time these hackings were carried out. Editors and reports might therefore have used this pretext to suggest that they were trying to help the police and the investigators to find out the actual reasons behind these crimes and bring justice to the victims and their families (Tait 2012).

Private investigators on the other hand might have suggested that they were merely doing their job that they had been hired for. They might also have suggested that they were completely unaware of the fact that the investigation was not backed up by legal authorities and the target population had not consented for the same (Keeble & Mair 2012).

Finally, police officials might have said that they were attempting to conduct a study and trying to uncover ways in which voicemail messages can be hacked by criminals. This would help the police in making the society a better place. Alternately, they might also have sided with the media and suggested that they were trying to uncover the truth and enforce justice (Miceli et al 2012).

Social Responsibility

The social responsibility strategy as adopted at the beginning of the scandal was defensive in nature. A business as an entity has a responsibility to maximise its profits thereby increasing its ability to give back to the society. The newspaper would have justified its perspective by suggesting that hackings were undertaken so as to maximise business profits and increase their readership.

However, as the scandal unfolded and it became clear that the newspaper’s actions were highly unethical in nature. This led to an adoption of ‘accommodative’ stance. Officials publically apologised for their actions. Rupert Murdoch accepted responsibility and suggested that he realises that he is unfit to run an international business (Miceli et al 2012). Further, NoW agreed to make payments worth 332m pounds towards settlement of aggregate expenses, costs and fines arising out of the scandal (Wring 2012). Additionally, there were 377 compensation claims launched against the newspaper by celebrities who had been targeted by the newspaper. Politicians and public figures also charged the newspaper of corruption and this played a major role in changing the strategy from defensive to accommodative. Although the newspaper promised that it would turn proactive and would be more socially responsible, it was completely brought down owing to its actions (Charnley 2012).


In personal opinion, whistleblowers at the newspaper and at London Metropolitan police would have been severely penalised and might have lost their jobs. From an ethical standpoint, it is standard practice to keep names of whistleblowers anonymous (Tait 2012). This helps organisations in sticking with ethical behaviour while being able to punish wrong doers. NoW and the London Metropolitan Police in this case however demonstrate an example of highly unethical organisations (Miceli et al 2012). They placed private profit and money making over and above interests of the society and disregarded fundamental rights to privacy and consent. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to expect that these organisations would have maintained ethical behaviour and kept whistleblower names anonymous. Once found, they would have been penalised (Charnley 2012).

It might be suggested that whistleblowers within NoW and the London Metropolitan Police Department did the society a great favour by exposing the corruption scandal.

Ethical Models

Individuals often look up to their role models for adjusting their behaviour. Therefore, it is truly necessary that leaders demonstrate ethical behaviour. In this case, newspaper leaders should have completely refrained from unethically accessing voicemail messages of any individual. Instead, they should have contacted abductees, murder victims and public figures and requested them for an interview. They should then have requested for information in an legal and ethical manner (Wring 2012).

Police officials should have refrained from accepting payments and siding with the media officials. Instead, they should have taken this as a sign of wrong-doing and investigated against newspaper leaders. They should also have re-opened their investigations when initial complaints were launched against the newspaper. Further, they should have warned potential targets about the ongoing scandal so as to protect them from the same (Miceli et al 2012).

Politicians should have taken strict actions against police officials who accepted bribes and should have utilised their power to bring the newspaper down. They could also have used their power ethically to talk to newspaper leaders and stop them from being unethical (Charnley 2012).


From the above discussion, it might be concluded that although ethical behaviour is highly expected of political, social and media leaders, it might not always be demonstrated. Individuals tend to place their personal gains over and above interests of the society and ethical conduct. Highly unethical behaviour was demonstrated by leaders in this case and the behaviour was backed up by police officials. This eventually led to the downfall of the newspaper thereby making it evident that corruption exists in every part of the society and cannot be completely stopped or curbed.

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