Archive for the ‘phone hacking’ tag
This was first posted on the Media Standards Trust website on Friday 21st January 2011
News International must be hankering after the balmy days of summer 2010.
Back last June they appeared to have successfully weathered the phone hacking story, despite the valiant efforts of The Guardian’s to keep the story alive in 2009.
The Conservatives, strongly supported by News International titles – particularly The Sun – in the lead up to the election were installed in Number 10. Not as a majority government, but with majority control.
Coulson, one of the key figures at News International and close friends with the recently installed Chief Executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, had been appointed Director of Communications at No.10.
Rupert Murdoch may have been quietly confident that News Corporation’s bid to take over the remaining 60.9% of BSkyB would be waved through.
Enter the New York Times
Then, in September 2010, the New York Times investigation was published. ‘Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond’ was the result of three months investigation by three experienced Times journalists, Don Van Natta Jr, Jo Becker and Graham Bowley.
Publication by the New York Times changed the whole tenor of the story. Phone hacking was no longer a UK media story, it was a political story with international implications (due to Murdoch’s ownership of the Wall Street Journal). The NY Times investigation meant the BBC and, to its credit, Sky News could start covering the story without being accused of following The Guardian’s agenda. Labour politicians, now out of office and free to criticise the media, could start to attack Andy Coulson.
Even still, the story ebbed as most other UK papers refused to take it on. Only the Financial Times and The Independent started to report new evidence regularly and prominently.
Nor did the police show any great interest in turning over a story they had rather hoped would go away (given their close relationship with News International and failure both to interview many of those implicated in phone hacking or warn those whose phones had been hacked).
Yet the story refused to die. Thanks to continued digging by The Guardian – especially Nick Davies – and to legal cases taken against the News of the World by individuals who believed their phones had been hacked, news kept seeping out.
Coulson’s unambiguous evidence to the Commons Select Committee in 2010 certainly helped keep it alive. Asked by the Committee if phone hacking went any further than Clive Goodman (the royal correspondent who was jailed for phone hacking) Coulson said that he was “absolutely sure that Goodman’s was a very unfortunate rogue case”. Asked if he knew anything about phone hacking while he was editor of the paper he said he had no knowledge of what was going on.
Had Coulson taken a different approach he may have avoided resignation. He could, for example, have taken the ‘confess and seek mercy’ approach. He could have said that yes, he did know about the hacking and he dreadfully regretted that he was involved. But, given it was rife in the industry he had not fully realised its seriousness. Moreover, when he did realise, he resigned.
This approach would not have burnished his political reputation, might have cut his political career short, and would have led people to question Cameron’s judgment, but it is a position he could have maintained.
Instead, he took the Manuel from Fawlty Towers approach – ‘I know nothing’. This became increasingly untenable as evidence emerged that more and more people under his command were involved.
Then the News of the World suspended Ian Edmondson. Edmondson was assistant editor of news at News of the World. He worked closely with Coulson and then subsequently with the new editor Colin Myler. He was suspended when a series of court documents about the hacking of Sienna Miller’s phone became public that had the name ‘Ian’ written in the top left hand corner.
This was too close. If Edmondson knew about phone hacking then maintaining the line that Coulson was in the dark became much more difficult.
Sure enough, on Friday 21st January, a day after Alan Johnson’s resignation as opposition Chancellor and with Blair being quizzed by the Chilcot Inquiry, Coulson announced his resignation.
Does it end here?
News International are no doubt hoping that their annus horribilis stops here. Now Coulson is on his way out of No. 10 they must hope that the story will lose its political piquancy and slowly dwindle.
Of course the opposite could happen. Coulson’s departure could confirm the belief of those who have been unravelling this story that it goes deep within the political and media classes, and on to the Metropolitan police and the phone companies.
His exit is also unlikely to quell the energy of those fighting court cases to discover if their phones were hacked. These will trundle on, and with them further evidence of how many people at the News of the World were involved.
Then there is the press itself. Though the story has focused on the News of the World we know (from Operation Motorman) that ‘the illegal trade in confidential personal information’ went much further. The Media Standards Trust has previously supported calls for a proper independent inquiry into the whole problem. Now Coulson is gone there may well be more chance of this happening.
For News International, the story is far from over. What it woudn’t give to bring back those lazy hazy crazy days of summer 2010.
Paul McMullan is probably not the best defender of press freedom. His arguments are muddled and contradictory. He puts forward moral arguments for privacy intrusion, but then confesses to having no moral sense. Yet he is worth listening to, partly because his arguments clearly reflect the views of others working in newspapers, and partly because – as Nick Davies said at the City University debate on phone hacking last night – he is the one of the only ones “who had the bollocks to speak on the record” about phone hacking and other ‘dark arts’ practiced at the News of the World.
McMullan was a features executive and member of the News of the World’s investigations team. He now runs a pub in Dover. He told Nick Davies at the Guardian that “Getting information from confidential records, we did that regularly, time and time again. I always hid behind the journalist’s fundamental get-out clause that, if it’s in the public interest, you can do what you like. Some of what Steve [Whittamore] did was legal, like using the electoral register, but if he went a step further, I would not have given a second thought to whether that was illegal, because that’s part of your job.”
McMullan was one of six panellists debating how far a journalist should go, to a packed auditorium of 400+ students and journalists at City. Also on the panel were Guardian journalist Nick Davies, solicitor Mark Lewis, Professor Roy Greenslade, Max Mosley and Lord (Ken) MacDonald (former DPP), chaired by Andrew Caldecott QC.
For McMullan journalism pursues noble ends by ignoble means. It exposes corruption, hypocrisy, misbehaviour and moral transgressions. This is his justification not just for phone hacking but for delving deep into the private lives of public figures. If they hold themselves up as figures of public virtue, he argued, then the press should be able to show people when that is not true. We have a right to expose “dirty little sinners… breaking their marriage vows”, McMullan said.
Nor is it just public figures, but anyone who might have done something wrong. McMullan was particularly proud of a News of the World splash he worked on that ‘named and shamed’ 50 peadophiles in the UK, publishing their names, photographs and addresses in the paper. Unfortunately, as Roy Greenslade pointed out, not all of those named were paedophiles and a number later successfully sued the paper for defamation.
Privacy, for McMullan, is just another word for secrecy, and secrecy should be exposed. “Privacy is the place where we do bad things” McMullan said. “In order to have a free and open society, you must treat privacy as the demon”. Though the former NotW journalist may have been exaggerating for the sake of effect, the idea that journalists should have a right to invade people’s privacy for the greater benefit of society is shared by others. Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of Mail Group Newspapers, made a similar argument in one of his rare public outings in November 2008:
“if mass-circulation newspapers, which also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process” (Paul Dacre, Society of Editors, 9 November 2008).
Yet there are many contradictions inherent in McMullan’s argument. He does not indicate whether there should be different rules for ‘public figures’ as against ‘ordinary people’. Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on Monday night, ‘Tabloids, Tories and Telephone Hacking’, interviewed a woman who had been the victim of a sexual assault by a celebrity. She was not herself a celebrity. She had not chosen to be assaulted. She had asked for, and been granted, legal anonymity by the court. Yet she was traced, pursued and harassed by journalists and photographers because – it would appear – her personal details were hacked.
Nor is it clear what constitutes ‘a public figure’ and whether public figures deserve some privacy protection as well. Politicians are public figures but are those that head the Federation International de l’Automobile (as Mosley did)? Mr Dacre is a public figure, yet he is highly protective of his own privacy, as are other newspaper editors, owners and executives like Richard Desmond and Rebekah Brooks (of News International). And we read very little about Dacre, Desmond or Brooks in the press. Only The Independent, for example, published the news that Richard Desmond’s divorce went through this week.
Celebrities are clearly public figures, but less clear is whether exposing their private lives is in the public interest. But, the argument goes, they are role models, and often deliberately expose their private lives for their own benefit; therefore the press are justified in publishing stories that appear to contradict a celebrity’s public persona. Yet, as Max Mosley pointed out, people do not go to watch John Terry because he is a good family man, they go to see him play football. On top of which, there is something sinister about the fact that the News of the World, we learn, keeps ‘dossiers’ on public figures and celebrities.
Eventually McMullan’s defence defaulted to the public. “The bigger jury is the readership” he said. If people do not approve of the stories than they will stop buying the paper, and then the paper will have to publish less intrusive stories.
This argument falls down on many fronts. People used to flock to public executions, but that was not used as a justification to maintain the death penalty. In addition to which, people did not know how the News of the World, and other newspapers, were finding their stories until the Guardian and the New York Times started investigating it.
Which brings us to the final irony in McMullan’s argument. If transparency is such a public good, why has News International reportedly paid out almost £2 million already to prevent files held by the police coming into the public domain? Wouldn’t it be to the benefit of everyone if these files – which purportedly have details of thousands of examples of privacy intrusion by the press – were opened up so we could judge for ourselves whether they were done in the public interest?
Other blogs about the City University #phonehacking debate:
‘Mosley and McMullan ‘star’ in News of the World phone-hacking debate‘ Roy Greenslade
‘Nick Davies apologises to the News of the World‘ Jon Slattery
‘Privacy or press freedom? journalism needs to juggle both‘ Wannabe Hacks
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.