What did J.K. Rowling know, and how did she know it?

One of the more vivid pen-portraits in the Harry Potter series is the tabloid journalist Rita Skeeter in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In addition to fabricating quotes and facts, Skeeter illegally eavesdrops on private conversations by transforming herself into a beetle. Before this particular magic trick is revealed, the three central characters guess that she is somehow listening in, and one of them suggests that she might have found a way of “bugging” Hogwarts; the use of the word eventually suggests the truth to Hermione.

The resemblance to the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, in a book published way back in 2000, is strong enough to raise questions.

1.  Was this mere coincidence? After all, illegal eavesdropping is the sort of thing an unethical reporter might do, and it’s possible that Rowling simply made it up.

2.  Did Rowling have real information not available to others, or an intuition about what was happening based on information showing up in news stories? The former seems implausible; the latter is easier to believe.

3.  Was the fact, though not the extent, of phone hacking widely known among educated UK citizens, but not discussed in the media?

Footnote “Codswallop,” Mr. Mayor?  Really?



Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “What did J.K. Rowling know, and how did she know it?”

  1. I’m guessing just coincidence: the sleazy tabloid reporter with an eye for every ethical loophole they can possibly wiggle through is a stock stereotype
    In British popular fiction, and has been for quite a while ( though usually characterized as an overweight, alcoholic male ) .

  2. In my mind, she was modeling Rita based on some real reporter who got on her bad side.
    Seemed way to acid, not just cardboard cutout.

  3. When politicians resort to “I don’t remember” that means they are in trouble. The suggestion here is not about Johnson being a target himself – it’s whether, as the new political authority over the Met, he put his thumb on the scales to protect Murdoch. Boris did not say “I was outraged at the allegations and urged the police to get to the bottom of it, let the chips fall where they may”. At present he’s irrelevant, the inquiry is grinding on: the Met’s strong motivation is to restore its badly damaged reputation.

  4. “It has been speculated that the fraught relationship between Rowling and the press was the inspiration for the author to develop the character. However, Rowling noted in 2000 that the character actually predates her rise to fame.[24] Rita was intended to be in Philosopher’s Stone, as Rowling revealed in an interview: “you know when Harry walks into the Leaky Cauldron for the first time and everyone says, “Mr. Potter you’re back!”, I wanted to put a journalist in there. She wasn’t called Rita then but she was a woman. And then I thought, as I looked at the plot overall, I thought, that’s not really where she fits best, she fits best in Four when Harry’s supposed to come to terms with his fame.”[25]


    1. Illuminating in general, but doesn’t really go to Mark’s question. I read “Flat Earth News”, the 2008 book by Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who played a key roll in blowing up Murdoch. I don’t recall precise details, but he does establish that this issue has been percolating a long time. UK Samefactsers, please jump in here.

      1. Speaking as American who is married to an Englishman and living in Scotland:

        Neither my husband nor I were in any way, shape, or form surprised that News International used questionable or illegal methods to obtain information. Plenty of tabloids had done that before, and News International would have been the exception to the rule — a very unlikely exception.

        What was surprising was (1) that the hacking wasn’t just limited to isolated incidents and/or committed by third parties, (2) the alleged degree of corruption within the Metropolitan Police, and (3) the extent of the hacking.

        Traditionally, tabloids (not just in the UK) had been careful to at least maintain plausible deniability when it came to snooping. They’d buy their information from third parties, or at most have responsibilities clearly compartmentalized. Consequently, there was no real need to extensively bribe the police because third parties and “rogue employees” could be jettisoned, and being taken to court was largely just an (affordable) part of the cost of doing business in the industry. And they were fairly well insulated from the risk of actual criminal charges.

        In short, the real shocker was the casual disregard for the law, and the absence of even any pretense of legality. We didn’t expect that. That they were snooping on people and using (at the minimum) questionable methods or the entanglement of the Murdoch Empire in politics wasn’t surprising; the “we’re outside the law” attitude was.

    1. Well, ‘skeeter’ suggests mosquito to me. Ms Rowling usually keeps her puns detectable (though often delectable as well).

  5. Maybe I’m missing something: I thought it was widely believed in the UK acting/celebrity community from at least 2005 on that someone was tapping their phones, but that every attempt to file complaints with police depts came to naught (in retrospect, for obvious reasons). I don’t take in much celebrity gossip but even I caught those stories.


  6. Squidgygate, involving conversations of the Princess of Wales, revealed by the Sun in 1992, appears to have been the Ur case, that made phone-hacking an iconic touchstone of tabloid culture. The Wikipedia article, running well over 5000 words, ties it to subsequent events down to the News of the World scandal. Since the Potter story takes place in a parallel universe — one year per volume — starting around 1991 or so, Squidgygate and its cultural-controversial aftermath would have been contemporary events by the third or fourth volume of the story.

  7. I go for number 3. I’d tend towards claiming it was basically known not just widely suspected. The tabloids regularly reported on what royals and other celebrities had said over cell phones. I recall a discussion of whether the information was leaked from Cheltenham (UK analog of Ft Meade).

    My sense is that the change was not at all that phone hacking was discovered, but that hacking the phone of a teenage kidnapping victim and deleting phone messages creating the false hope that she was still alive caused people in power to decide that Murdoch employees had gone too far.

    In any case, there is no doubt in my mind (nor any evidence) that Rowland herself was very careful about what she said on the phone, because she feared that her phone might be hacked.

  8. Everyone knew tabloids paid private investigators, who might do things like bugging a room, which is a more likely inspiration for Rita Skeeter. I don’t think it was generally known they could listen to phone messages, although as someone pointed out there were persistent rumours in certain circles that this was going on. It wasn’t something people were generally aware of.

    On the footnote, I’m not sure why you choose to quote a Conservative politician when discussing the crimes of a strongly new labour supporting news organisation, and an investigation that took place while there was a Labour mayor of London, under the leadership of a Met commisioner who Boris got rid of as soon as he came into office.

    Robert, NotW didn’t delete messages – they were deleted automatically.

  9. 2000 was *very* early, though – the pay-as-you-go GSM adoption surge really took off at Christmas 1999. Hardly anyone had a cellular phone in the 90s, everybody did by 2002.

    Squidgygate is still a bit mysterious, but the best guess seems to be that the *fixed* end of the call was somehow compromised (perhaps by intercepting a cordless phone, which is easier than a true mobile device, or perhaps by someone who had access to the Buckingham Palace PBX) as there are signalling artefacts on the tape that shouldn’t be in an over-the-air intercept of an analogue cellular call. Whether this reflects intercepting the FXO (i.e. upstream, facing the telco network) side of a PBX, or whether they were added to the tape deliberately in order to disguise its origins, remains a mystery.

  10. I’m not sure why you choose to quote a Conservative politician when discussing the crimes of a strongly new labour supporting news organisation

    Probably because they hired that organisation’s boss as both the Conservative Party director of communications and the No.10 Downing Street press secretary, on the recommendation of one of its editors and of the Met Police press chief, who himself hired yet another NI executive (Neil Wallis) on the editor’s recommendation, who had previously been a PR adviser to the Conservative Party. Oh, and they made Wallis’s boss (Michael Gove) at NI secretary of state for education. (At least it wasn’t Culture or Justice or Cabinet Office Intelligence & Security Coordinator.)

    And the editor who recommended Coulson to Osborne and Fedorcio moved to the prime minister’s constituency, so she could meet him on MP-constituent terms without having to appear in the register of external lobbying. (Where the PM rode the horse the Met press chief gave her.)

    NotW didn’t delete messages – they were deleted automatically.

    this statement relies entirely on the proposition that only the NoTW ever used Glenn Mulcaire (known false), Mulcaire always updated his notes immediately he got new instructions (heroic assumption), he wouldn’t have decided to keep something especially sensitive off the record (touchingly naive), and the Met can be trusted to give an honest account of what is in his notes…

  11. In 1993 the British tabloids published excerpts of a cellphone conversation that was eavesdropped on, in which Prince Charles expressed his desire to be a tampon. So that’s the possible source of Rowling’s idea.

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