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The topsy–turvy world of newspaper regulation and government spies

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Press Freedom, Leveson, GCHQ and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

This piece was originally published at the New Statesman on 25 November 2013

At the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice and Wonderland the March Hare upbraids Alice for claiming she can solve a riddle:

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare. “Exactly so,”  said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!”

In Britain today, you might just as well say ‘The press is free’ as ‘Free the press’, or ‘the end of press freedom’ as ‘freedom to end the press’ or ‘state controlled press’ as ‘press controlled state’. So back-to-front, upside down, and misshapen has the debate about press freedom become.

On the one hand we have had a chorus of newspapers thundering about how the press Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press agreed on 30th October represents the end of 300 years of press freedom, and would allow politicians control of the British press.

On the other hand we have had many of the same newspapers accusing one of their own — the Guardian — of ‘treason’ and helping terrorists, for revealing the extent of secret surveillance by the British and US governments.

Both in principle and practice these newspapers have got the debate the wrong way round. They claim the Royal Charter represents an end to press freedom without providing evidence to support such a claim. At the same time they fail to see any danger to press freedom from the types of threats made by the government against the Guardian. Continue to mix the debate up and we will end up with a press cowed and politically compromised. But see the Royal Charter and Snowden affair for what they are and Britain could become a freer and fairer country.

The press Royal Charter has earned hundreds of column inches in the UK press in the past month. Countless leaders and news reports have intoned about the dangers for press freedom from political interference. ‘A press free from political ­interference is a precious inheritance’, The Times’ leader of 31st October read. The Royal Charter ‘grants politicians the right to meddle in press regulation for the first time since the licensing of newspapers was abolished in 1695’, claimed the Daily Mail. Whilst The Telegraph said that ‘The question of how our press is regulated is a question of how best to defend free speech. It is about ensuring that responsible newspapers have the freedom to publish what they wish and that the public have the freedom to read what we publish. That is why we cannot accept the current proposals for regulation by statute’.

We should take these claims seriously because, if true, they would justify the boycott of the system by many news groups, and undermine separate claims – made by Leveson, politicians, the group representing victims of press abuse, and others — that the Charter will protect press freedom and even enhance it.

So, does the Charter grant ‘politicians the right to meddle in Press regulation’, and does it in any way threaten newspapers freedom to publish what they wish, or the public’s freedom to read what they publish?

The first thing to make clear is that the Charter does not establish a regulator. It establishes a body whose sole task will be to check the independence and effectiveness of regulators set up by news organisations themselves, administering their own code of conduct. The body will base its assessment on a series of basic standards, written by Lord Justice Leveson, and copied into a schedule in the Charter. Those newspapers who have claimed the criteria were drawn up by politicians should compare Leveson’s wording with the wording of the Royal Charter. It is hard to fit a cigarette paper between them.

Politicians are explicitly excluded from the body established by Royal Charter. Further, they are excluded from the staff of that body, and from the Appointments Panel that appoints that body. Any regulator that wants to be recognised by this body is also explicitly banned from having any politicians on its Board. It is hard, therefore, to see how this corresponds to the Daily Mail’s claim that the Charter ‘grants politicians the right to meddle in press regulation’.

Royal Charters are, however, instruments of royal prerogative. As such, with most Royal Charters it is possible for privy councillors (of whom there are hundreds, including serving government ministers) to meddle. It was for this reason that an amendment was passed in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (2013) that prevents — by law — any interference in this Royal Charter by privy councillors. Again, it is hard to see how this corresponds to the Daily Mail’s claim.

What about The Telegraph’s view that the Charter jeopardises newspapers freedom to publish what they wish? No evidence is given to support this assertion, and it is hard to see what it could be based on. The Charter states that no regulator should ‘have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’. Any regulator established should only have the power to offer redress to members of the public after publication. This contradicts The Telegraph’s assertion.

But what about future amendment of the Charter? This argument, which is perhaps the one made most frequently, is that the Charter provides a device that future politicians can change such that they can exert control over the press. The argument has been made more broadly than just by The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.

According to these articles, this is how it might work. A future parliament, angry at the press for revealing something like MPs’ expenses, changes the Royal Charter in a way that constrains press freedom to do something similar in the future. For example, a future parliament alters the so-called ‘recognition criteria’ in the Royal Charter to include a clause preventing examination of MPs’ financial affairs.

This scenario might sound reasonable and credible. As such, it will cause sensible people who care about press freedom to worry. Except that, when examined, it becomes clear that it is neither reasonable nor credible.

This is how such a scenario would actually play out under the Charter system. If MPs were angry at the press they would first have to agree on what to do about it. Having agreed that a change in the Royal Charter was the best approach (highly unlikely, as you will see later) they would then need to convince two thirds of their number. Having convinced two thirds of their number, they would then have to convince two thirds of the House of Lords. They would then have to gain the unanimous agreement of the independent Board of the Recognition body (none of whom can be politicians). They would have to do this against a backdrop of public debate about the changes and, no doubt, many concerned voices published in the pages of national papers and elsewhere.

But let us, for the sake of argument, accept that the proposed change to the Charter passes these hurdles and the Charter is changed. What does this then mean? It means that, at the next three-year cyclical review (or at an emergency review – if the independent recognition body can make the case that one is necessary), a regulator or regulators – taking into account the change to the Charter – will have to decide whether to put themselves forward for recognition under the amended Charter criteria.

Given that the board of any regulator will include those working in the press, those with experience of the press, and independent members, it is unthinkable that they would put themselves forward if they thought the changes represented a serious infringement of their freedom to publish in the public interest. Why would they?

Assuming, therefore, that the regulator — or regulators — did not apply for recognition, then there would be no recognised regulator. The court costs incentives for participation, and penalties for non-participation, in a regulatory system would therefore disappear (since these only apply when there is a recognised regulator).

This is the failsafe that has been ignored by those in the press that rail against the Charter. It is not simply for the publishers to choose whether they join, or do not join, a regulator. It is also for the regulator to decide whether to put itself forward for recognition (as the industry’s Independent Press Standards Organisation has said it will not do). If they believe the Charter has been made too restrictive, then they can choose not to participate.

The regulator, or regulators, could then continue to do its job, without the court cost penalties or incentives of the Leveson system (in other words, essentially what we have right now). The change to the Charter, which would have needed to pass numerous democratic hurdles, and would have been years in the making, would turn out to be counter-productive, and would have no impact on the press’ ability to publish anything, at any time, to anyone. There would be no end to press freedom, no government control, no political interference.

Contrast this with an alternative scenario. Imagine that MPs are angry at the press for revealing MPs expenses and are determined to prevent it happening in the future. By a simple majority they introduce a change to the Freedom of Information Act to exclude the personal financial affairs of MPs. Or they could amend the Data Protection Act to protect the privacy of MPs’ spending. Each change only requires a majority vote in the House of Commons. The change comes into force within months and suddenly MPs can rest easy that their future purchases of bath plugs and film channel subscriptions will remain hidden from public view.

This is a real threat. This is something that could happen now. MPs can, and do, use and amend existing legislation in a way that genuinely threatens press freedom. Equally, they can turn to their existing powers and legislation already available — though not meant for journalism — to constrain and attack journalism.

In July, a senior editor and a computer expert at the Guardian destroyed a number of computers with angle grinders. The computers contained files leaked by Edward Snowden on the activities of GCHQ and the NSA. The destruction was directed by the UK intelligence service and was overseen by technicians from GCHQ.

In August, David Miranda was stopped while in transit through Heathrow airport. He was held under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act (2000). He was interrogated for nine hours and various personal items taken from him and not returned. Subsequently the authorities said he had been stopped based on the belief that he was engaged in espionage and was promoting a “political or ideological cause”. Miranda was promoting no such cause, unless the authorities define ‘journalism’ as a cause.

In October, the Prime Minister David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons and said that the Snowden files were ‘dangerous’ for Britain: “The plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security”. He encouraged parliamentary committees to investigate the Guardian’s actions. In a subsequent debate he went further and threatened the Guardian with pre-publication censorship:

“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act”.

Some MPs went further still. Julian Smith MP wrote to the head of the Metropolitan Police asking him to investigate the Guardian and calling on the police to compel the Guardian to cooperate.

This is what it looks like when a government attacks press freedom. Smashing computers in news organisations. Using existing terrorist laws not meant for journalism. Threatening pre-publication censorship and prosecution.

In the US The Washington Post also has access to some of Snowden’s documents. It has published a series of stories based on those documents. It has written opinion pieces about the NSA and Snowden, including one calling Snowden a patriot. Has the US government attacked The Washington Post? No it has not. Has it sent intelligence officials to destroy its hardware? It has not. Obama has even acknowledged the benefits of the debate triggered by Snowden’s leaks. ‘There’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board’ Obama said. Though this does not mean the US government applauds Snowden, far from it.

It is not surprising that the UK government should be angry about the Snowden leaks. Nor is it surprising, though it is depressing, that the government should threaten a newspaper that is publishing stories based on the leaks. Governments do not like their secrets exposed, and it would be strange if they did not react strongly to the possession of 58,000 intelligence documents (the number — we are told — that were leaked to the Guardian).

Much more surprising – and more depressing – has been the reaction of much of the British press. The Sun accused The Guardian of ‘treason’. The Daily Mail called it ‘The paper that helps Britain’s enemies’. The Telegraph has uncritically reported claims by the government and intelligence agencies that it has helped terrorists around the world (‘Terrorists are ‘rubbing their hands with glee’ after Snowden leaks’).

The press attacks on the Guardian are framed as patriotic attempts to promote security. Yet the arguments made and language used do not balance security with freedom to publish. Indeed, these papers urge the government to constrain the Guardian’s freedom, and egg on the most vociferous MPs. The MP Julian Smith even referenced The Sun’s coverage to ask if it was not ‘time for any newspaper that may have crossed the line on national security to come forward and voluntarily work with the Government to mitigate further risks to our citizens?’ (HC Deb, 28 October 2013, c666).

To what end are these newspapers doing this? If the government does investigate and prosecute, or institute new laws to better secure ‘national security’ then we will live in a more secretive country, one in which news organisations have to be careful not to publish material that may, in the Government’s view, damage our safety and security.

If that sounds familiar it is because most non-democratic states in the world have laws that prevent media organisations from publishing information that may threaten the security of the state. In Russia, for example, the law on Combating Extremist Activity (2002) can be used against media organisations whose behaviour is considered dangerous to the State. In Syria for decades the government was able to exert control over the media through the state of emergency law. In Belarus you can serve up to five years in prison for insulting the president.

Laws such as these give broad powers to the state to prevent publication of material they do not like, or that they believe may damage their reputation internationally. Stories, for example, like MPs’ expenses.

We live in a world of leaks. Storing vast quantities of information, removing it from government or corporations, distributing it, and publishing it, has become straightforward. Leaking, to a general or a restricted public, will become more, not less, prevalent. Manning and Snowden are not anomalies, they are forerunners.

When such leaks happen, what would the government and security services prefer? Would they prefer that future Snowdens simply dumped their documents on the web? Or would they prefer that future leakers approached responsible news organisations?

No doubt the intelligence agencies would most like leakers to come to them. Yet technological, political and societal developments are such that it would be foolish to imagine information available to more than a hundred thousand people will remain secret indefinitely. The information Snowden had access to was reportedly available to 850,000 people.

We need models of how to use these leaks responsibly. We need media institutions that have the capabilities, the expertise, and the journalistic ethics, to properly assess and manage these leaks. Attack these institutions and we encourage data dumping. What whistleblower will now choose to go to The TelegraphThe Times, The Daily Mail or The Sun?

The actions of certain UK newspapers will discourage responsible whistleblowing and cow brave journalism that is in the public interest. Worse, it could encourage the government to behave in a way that discourages other news organisations from accepting data in the future. Fearing, for example, that the government will enter their offices and smash their computers.

We cannot rely on the UK government to restrain itself. Nor can we rely on our media to defend media institutions from government interference. This is why Britain needs to have an equivalent of the United States’ First Amendment. Something that Leveson recommended in his report but which, bizarrely, was ignored by most newspapers:

‘In passing legislation to identify the legitimate requirements to be met by an independent regulator organised by the press, and to provide for a process of recognition and review of whether those requirements are and continue to be met, the law should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press’ (Leveson Report, Summary of Recommendations, #33).

Sadly, no newspapers have taken up Leveson’s call for a press freedom law. Instead, quixotically, many have tilted at imaginary windmills of their own making. They have chosen to rail against a voluntary system of independent self-regulation that will not constrain their freedom, rather than defend a newspaper that is being subjected to state interference under existing laws.

The rhetoric of press freedom seems to have disappeared into Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, where up means down, left means right, and almost everyone has forgotten what freedom really means.

Written by Martin Moore

December 11th, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Oh for those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer

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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 mistake

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.

Written by Martin Moore

February 4th, 2011 at 4:57 pm

A defence of phone hacking, from ex-NotW journalist

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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:

Phone hacking: ex-News of the World journalist ‘tapped up’ by police‘ Josh Halliday

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

Written by Martin Moore

October 6th, 2010 at 1:07 pm

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