Over the last couple of weeks I have been shocked and outraged by the mounting evidence of phone hacking, police mistakes and political cowardice. Each day I’ve thought it could get no worse, and then it has.
Obviously until people are convicted of crimes in a court of law they are to be considered innocent. However, I think it is fair to say the following. It is clear not just from the revelations of the last fortnight, but also from the Information Commissioner’s report of 2006, that illegal activities were going on at the late News of the World. Whilst I have sympathy for the employees of that paper for losing their jobs, in a cynical attempt by senior News International executives to dupe the British public into thinking that by closing it down we wouldn’t demand investigations into other News International and News Corporation titles, and the growing ground swell opinion against the complete take over of B Sky B by News Corporation, it is inconceivable to me that no one other than those convicted already of phone hacking knew anything about it. I won’t name any people but we’ve seen a number of them interviewed in recent days by MPs and we know another was forced to resign from his job at the News of the World. That Information Commissioner’s report also made it clear that illegal use of information was widespread. Why didn’t this report get more coverage in 2006?
We Saw Rupert and James Murdoch in-front of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday and their evidence can best be summarised as, I wasn’t there and don’t know in Mr Murdoch junior’s case and I saw nothing, heard nothing and knew nothing from Mr Murdoch senior. Given that we know how interested Rupert Murdoch was in the newspapers that he owned, calling editors to ask about stories and how they were gained, I simply don’t believe that he had no idea whatsoever. Then of course there’s the position of former editors on the board of News International and his friendship with some of those directly implicated. And if all that wasn’t enough the idea that the News of the World was a small part of his business and so beneath his notice, despite the fact that it was the most popular of his papers is unbelievable.
A short digression, I was surprised to see how frail and elderly Rupert Murdoch appeared during the grilling he received by MPs and particularly by Tom Watson. I had heard so much about the forceful personality, the aggressive emperor, that I was expecting something more like the hearing involving George Galloway and the US Congress. He, Rupert Murdoch sounded more like a doddary old fool than the head of a multimedia conglomerate. Oh, and by the way, was I the only one that was reminded of a child when Rupert Murdoch kept banging the desk?
Not enough has yet been said on other newspapers that may have been participating in similar tactics, EG phone hacking, blagging, etc. The 2006 report placed the Daily Mail at the top of list of illegal activities with the News of the World in fifth place.
Turning to the police, I cannot understand how anyone could possibly think that the close relationship between senior police officials and people in the media could possibly be legitimate. The Home Affairs Committee report on this makes that clear as well as questioning a number of issues around the review in 2009. It seems to me that there were eleven thousand reasons why that case should have been reopened at that time.
The Prime Minister’s inability to apologise for his lack of judgement in employing Andy Coulson has frankly left me speechless. His argument that he was giving him a second chance doesn’t hold water. He isn’t running an outpost of the Probation Service, or some charity supporting offenders. He was the leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, likely to become Prime Minister with responsibility for national security, making peace and war, determining economic policy in a time of deep economic crisis, reforming the welfare system and the Health Service, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the PM’s responsibilities. And he thought it was legitimate to offer a man who had been forced to resign over illegal activities at his newspaper to a position where he would be at the centre of power at number Ten Downing Street. It is clear that he was warned again and again by the Deputy Prime Minister, By Lord Ashdown and by the Guardian, but he took no notice. It doesn’t take hindsight to work out that Andy Coulson was an inappropriate person to employ, it should have been obvious at the time. To apologise for the furor was not acceptable, it was the decision itself that needed the apology. If the PM is forced to apologise because it becomes clear that Coulson told him lies, his, the PM’s position may well become untenable.
The PM is however correct to point out that the link between politicians, particularly at the top of the two major parties and senior media figures has become far too close. Sir John Major was the last Prime Minister to have a poor relationship with the Murdoch press and look what happened to his Premiership. If any other evidence were needed concerning the power of the Murdoch press in particular and the media in general, it’s the treatment given to the Liberal Democrats. They have been ignored, accept when they’ve been treated with contempt. It was the 3 party leader debates that meant the media and particularly the Murdoch media had to give them coverage.
Yes the media, who participated and used illegally obtained information, the police, who didn’t investigate it properly and had too close a relationship with the media and the politicians who were so bound up with trying to carry favour that they also refused to challenge the media have a lot to answer for. But so do we, the Great British public. For too long too many people have thought it was perfectly ok for newspapers to publish salacious stories on the private lives of the rich and famous, on the grounds that those who were wealthy weren’t entitled to a private life. How many times have we heard people from the tabloid press argue that if you make your money publicly your fair game, or words to that effect. Well, I for one have always said that even footballers, politicians and other so called celebrities, are entitled to a private life, after all it is their life.
The difference between “public interest” and what the public finds interesting is fundamental to this, even if some of the public and newspaper employees still haven’t made the distinction.
I’m as guilty as the next man. When I heard about the recent footballer who had got a superinjunction I gave into my baser instincts and did a quick search on a popular search engine. Despite this, I don’t believe it was in the public interest to have this information. There is only one justification for such intrusion and that is public interest and the only way that this story could have been in the public interest is if the footballer concerned had publicly expressed opinions on the importance of monogamy. Always assuming that he was in-fact guilty of what he was alleged to have done.
A politician who announces that adulterers should be stoned and adulteresses should be hung, and then is found to have been an adulterer or adolteress, is fair game for public exposure. The same applies to the politician who makes critical moral judgements on homosexuality, and then is found to be a homosexual. The politician who makes no such statements should not have his private life dragged through the papers.
The fact that celebrities can afford civil cases, libel etc means that my sympathy is limited. Sympathy must be with the ordinary members of the public, the victims of crime, families of soldiers etc. But my point is that if its wrong for my private and personal information to end up in the paper, its also wrong for a celebrity.
Its perfectly legitimate for the public to know the tax status of a politician, after all he/she will be making decisions that will effect our lives and it is legitimate to ask if someone who doesn’t pay the same tax as an ordinary member of the public should be allowed to determine the law that applies to the rest of us.
The Telegraph that began the expenses scandal on the basis of information that was stolen was right to do use that information because it exposed gross misconduct by a number of elected politicians.
The default position must be that information that is private should remain so, that information obtained illegally should not be used, unless there is a public interest defence and that defence cannot be because the public finds it interesting.
I can only hope that the various inquiries that have been set up over the last week or so will do their jobs correctly so that those who participated in phone hacking and all the related illegal activities can be bought to trial and made to face up to their illegal activities. This should cover the people who did the illegal deeds themselves, those who knowingly used the information and the people who paid for it. My fear is that the evidence linking those at the top to those at the bottom no longer exists.
Beyond that, we must have a strengthened press watchdog which cannot be self regulating. After all we’ve seen what a great job the PCC has made of this whole subject. TV and Radio are monitored by a statutory body and no one talks about media control. No one should be allowed to own so large a steak in the British media. Murdoch’s holdings here must be broken up.
Finally, the close relationship between the police and the media and the political elite and the media must end. Increased plurality will certainly help with this.