Archive for the ‘Andy Coulson’ tag

Why we need a judicial inquiry into the phone hacking saga

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Last Friday the Media Standards Trust backed calls for a judicial inquiry into the phone hacking allegations at the News of the World. We did this for three – all rather practical – reasons:

1. Only a judicial inquiry, which would have the power to subpoena witnesses and order the release of police files, is likely to expose the truth about the allegations

The PCC has already conducted two ‘investigations’ into phone hacking allegations – one in 2007 and another in 2009. These essentially amounted to a polite exchange of letters with a small number of interested parties (not including Andy Coulson). Neither turned up anything new. Indeed, in its conclusions, rather than criticise the News of the World, the PCC went so far as to remind the Guardian of its obligations not to ‘to publish distorted or misleading information’ and claimed that ‘the Guardian’s stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given’.

Throughout 2009, the CMS Select Committee conducted a lengthy and detailed inquiry into ‘Press Standards, privacy and libel’, and from July focused considerable attention on the Guardian’s allegations. Yet they were frustrated by the ‘collective amnesia’ of News International and obfuscation from the Metropolitan Police. The Committee, despite its valiant efforts, did not have the resources, the remit or the powers (e.g. of subpoena) to uncover what really happened at the News of the World.

Last summer the Media Standards Trust called for the press to set up its own independent inquiry, after the Guardian published new evidence about phone hacking (see ‘This calls for an inquiry – but not by the PCC’, Media Guardian, July 13, 2009). We proposed newspapers should ‘appoint a genuinely independent figure with wide-ranging powers to conduct a lengthy and detailed investigation’. This could not only have boosted public confidence in the responsibility of the press, but also prevented a more official investigation that could potentially threaten press freedom. Our call was not taken up.

2. Without a judicial inquiry there is no guarantee the files will be opened

The police have files detailing thousands of examples of phone hacking and other invasions of privacy. We now understand this includes evidence that the then Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, had her phone hacked at least 28 times. Other ex-Ministers have reason to believe their phones were also hacked.

News International has, according to the Guardian and The New York Times, already paid a substantial amount of money to prevent these files being released (a reported £700,000 to  Gordon Taylor, and £1m to Max Clifford). It is also said to have paid Mulcaire and Goodman to keep quiet. Why would any company pay so much money to keep files hidden unless they revealed something they thought might be highly damaging?

Others are now stepping forward to make legal challenges and try to force disclosure of the files.

If there was a judicial inquiry that released the files then we could all judge the veracity of the claims against the News of the World for ourselves, and see how pervasive the phone hacking culture was across the news industry.

3. A judicial inquiry could prevent this being driven into a political cul-de-sac

Allegations of phone hacking on an industrial scale have made a lot of politicians understandably outraged. Unfortunately this is almost entirely on one side of the House. Even more unfortunately much of the attention has become focused on a single figure – No. 10’s Head of Communications, Andy Coulson.

Though this is entirely understandable, given Coulson was editor of News of the World during some of the period of alleged hacking, and given he has stated categorically that he had no knowledge of any hacking while he was in charge, it risks diverting the story into a political cul-de-sac. Were Coulson to resign some might see that as the end of the matter (see also Kevin Marsh’s piece ‘News of the World and the scalp hunt‘).

Yet the real story is about whether there was (is?) an ingrained culture of phone hacking and illegal intrusion at one of Britain’s most powerful media organisations. An organisation that could soon become even more powerful if News Corp is allowed to fully acquire Sky.

A judicial inquiry could renew the focus on the allegations, and stop the story being hijacked by high politics.

This story has now been stuttering along for over three years. As long as information seeps out it will continue to trundle along, with continued allegations and counter allegations, and a lingering sense of corruption.

Start an inquiry, expose the files, and shine some sunlight on News of the World and the Metropolitan police, and we can begin to draw a line under this whole affair.

Written by Martin Moore

September 7th, 2010 at 10:14 am

Let the press appoint its own independent investigator

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Nick Davies’ revelations about News Group Newspapers reiterate both the serious public concerns about privacy intrusion highlighted by the Media Standards Trust in its report earlier this year, and the failure of the current system to deal with this effectively.
“No evidence has emerged”, the 2007 Press Complaints Commission (PCC) report on subterfuge and newsgathering stated, “either from the legal proceedings or the Commission’s questions to Mr Myler and Mr Hinton of a conspiracy at the newspaper going beyond Messrs Goodman and Mulcaire to subvert the law and the PCC’s Code of Practice”. “[N]o-one else”, it continued, “at the News of the World knew that Messrs Goodman and Mulcaire were tapping phone messages for stories”. Clive Goodman was, according to the (new) editor of the News of the World, a “rogue exception”.
Davies’ allegations that awareness of phone tapping was both widely known and accepted would, if proved, contradict these findings. During the Goodman inquiry, Davies reports, ‘officers found evidence of News Group staff using private investigators who hacked into “thousands” of mobile phones’. ‘The Scotland Yard files included paperwork which revealed that, contrary to News Group’s denial, Mulcaire had provided a recording of the messages on Taylor’s phone to a News of the World journalist who had transcribed them and emailed them to a senior reporter, and that a News of the World executive had offered Mulcaire a substantial bonus for a story specifically related to the intercepted messages’.
At the time of the PCC’s inquiry it stretched credulity to think that a private investigator could have done such a significant amount of information gathering for the newspaper and no-one but Goodman be aware of many of his activities. Yet the inquiry seemed almost designed not to shed further light on the episode. The PCC decided it was beyond its jurisdiction to interview the relevant editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, because he had resigned following Goodman’s conviction. “The Commission had announced that it would make specific inquiries of the editor of the newspaper”, Sir Christopher Meyer, then Chairman of the PCC, said, “but as he [Coulson] has now resigned this is no longer appropriate”. Therefore they had to rely on the knowledge of the new editor, Colin Myler. But since Myler had not been working at the News of the World during the period in question – indeed had been editing a newspaper in New York – it was virtually certain he could not have known anything about what had been happening at the paper.
After speaking to Myler and Hinton, the PCC chose not to extend its interviews to more newspaper editors, but rather to write to them with specific questions. But these were not, as you might expect, to check whether the practices engaged in by Goodman were or were not widespread. Rather they were ‘to inquire about the extent of internal controls and what they [editors] did with regard to educating journalists about the requirements both of the Code and the law’. The PCC reported that it was satisfied by their responses. It then issued further guidelines about newsgathering and subterfuge. That was it. End of story.
Yet, only months earlier, the Information Commissioner had presented the PCC with files of evidence showing that the practices were widespread, and had urged the Commission to conduct a proper investigation. The PCC declined. Frustrated by the press’ lack of action the Information Commission published two reports, ‘What Price Privacy?’ and ‘What Price Privacy Now?’, referencing evidence of widespread illegal data hacking – most of it demonstrably not in the public interest. The Information Commissioner also published a ‘league table’ of newspapers’ trade in confidential personal information. The News of the World did not even come top of the table: the Daily Mail did, with 952 ‘transactions’ (and this from one detective agency, there could well have been others). Yet the Commissioner refrained from publishing the names of the victims or of the journalists involved. Some of the names of the victims are now being revealed by The Guardian’s new allegations.
Davies’ investigation backs up and extends the findings of the Information Commissioner’s inquiry. It confirms what many people thought, and what the Media Standards Trust report said earlier this year: that the current system of press accountability is not effective.
The question is, what to do now? There clearly ought to be proper investigation into the collection of personal information by newspapers – particularly the use of phone tapping. But who should do it? The Press Complaints Commission has already had an opportunity to conduct an inquiry but failed to discover any further wrongdoing. Moreover, its Articles of Association constrain its freedom to act and it has limited resources and personnel. However, any disproportionate action by Parliament or the police would raise understandable – and justifiable – concern about freedom of the press and a journalist’s right to protect the anonymity of their sources.
The press should, therefore, appoint a genuinely independent figure with wide-ranging powers, to conduct a lengthy and detailed investigation. There is precedent for this within the media and elsewhere. The BBC appointed Will Wyatt in the wake of the ‘Queengate’ affair. Wyatt then published a report highly critical of the Corporation. The FA appointed Lord Burns to look into the structure of the Football Association. The government has a long history of finding independent figures to run inquiries including MacPherson, Nolan, and Kelly.
Do this and the press could achieve two things. It could prove to critics of the system of press self-regulation that it is – contrary to popular perception – able to hold the press to account. And, it could help to renew public confidence. Based on a YouGov poll commissioned for our report and published in February, 70% of the public believe there are ‘far too many instances of people’s privacy being invaded by newspaper journalists’. Davies’ revelations will only confirm this impression. An independent investigation could both demonstrate whether this impression is misguided, and provide a basis from which action can be taken.

Written by Martin Moore

July 9th, 2009 at 3:16 pm

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A cynical appointment that shows little respect for the public

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The Conservative Party yesterday appointed Andy Coulson, ex-editor of the News of the World, as their new Director of Communication, on a salary reported to be over £400,000 a year.
What seems most astonishing about this appointment is the message it sends to the press and the public. It shows that the Conservatives want their very own Alastair Campbell – their own tabloid editor who knows how to charm, manipulate, cajole, square and bully the media. This despite the disastrous impact Campbell had on public trust and on public cynicism about political spin. Only a few weeks ago Michael Howard rounded on Campbell on Newsnight, saying that in the last 10 years “the tone and standards of public life in this country have deteriorated radically” and that Campbell bears “a heavy share of the responsibility for that” (Youtube Clip).
At the same time the appointment undermines the criticisms politicians have made of the media. How many times have we heard them talk about the damage the press has done to politics by focusing on personalities and by exposing people’s private lives with no regard for the public interest? Yet this is exactly what the News of the World under Coulson was so good at. In 2005 his revelations about the sex lives of Blunkett, Beckham and Sven Goran Eriksson won him the prize for ‘Newspaper of the Year’ at the British Press Awards. Less successful were his paper’s involvement in the staged Beckham kidnap plot, its libel loss against Tommy Sheridan, and its false accusation of three men for plotting to make a ‘dirty bomb’.
Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World when his royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, was convicted of illegally tapping the Royals’ phones (amongst others). In what looked from the outside like a deal struck with the Press Complaints Commission, Coulson was able to leave the paper quietly without being investigated. This despite the fact that if anyone knew about Goodman’s actions it had to be him, and that he was the only one who could really say if Goodman’s behaviour was unique at the News of the World.
Other evidence suggests Goodman’s actions were certainly not unique. A study last year by the Information Commissioner, What Price Privacy? reported on the findings of a police raid on a private detective who had been collecting personal information about people on behalf of newspapers – most of it clearly not in the public interest. From his records alone we know that 23 journalists from the News of the World made 228 requests for personal information.
For anyone hoping that the end of the Blair era would signal an end to dissembling, disinformation, and distraction, Coulson’s appointment will come as a great disappointment.

Written by Martin Moore

June 1st, 2007 at 8:30 am