Having spent the weekend taking journalism’s weak pulse, it would be remiss not to at least glance at the chart of the biggest media story of my lifetime. Especially since yesterday saw further revelations from the parliamentary select committee and the preliminary inquiry hearing into phone-hacking by UK newspapers. Again, I offer my apologies to everyone who reached saturation point with the whole affair long ago. That seems to be a fairly natural reaction, as at more than one point this summer, it seemed the revelations were coming too quickly to grasp. Yet things started slowly, as they often do, with actor Sienna Miller receiving a payout in the case she had brought against News Group, publishers of The Sun and The News of the World (NOTW), over claims they had hacked into her mobile phone’s voicemail messages. As part of the settlement they admitted unconditional liability.
And there it might have rested, one more tale of how vile the British newspapers can be to those they consider fair game because they are deemed to have courted fame for one reason or another. Interest might certainly have waned, were it not for continuing disclosures of the hacking of phones belonging to murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of service personnel killed in Afghanistan and even those who surely, they didn’t need to hack at all.
The NOTW defence that these practices were limited to one rogue reporter, Clive Goodman, jailed for hacking the phones of Buckingham Palace staff, were never particularly convincing. As occurred to many, what editor would be so un-curious as to the sources of such rival-busting scoops? That argument was further blown full of holes by a Guardian story detailing payouts of over £1m to settle three cases that threatened to reveal how widespread phone hacking was. As the Guardian very delicately pointed out:
The evidence also poses difficult questions for:
• Conservative leader David Cameron’s director of communications, Andy Coulson, who was deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World when, the suppressed evidence shows, journalists for whom he was responsible were engaging in hundreds of apparently illegal acts.
• Murdoch executives who, albeit in good faith, misled a parliamentary select committee, the Press Complaints Commission and the public.
• The Metropolitan police, which did not alert all those whose phones were targeted, and the Crown Prosecution Service, which did not pursue all possible charges against News Group personnel.
• The Press Complaints Commission, which claimed to have conducted an investigation, but failed to uncover any evidence of illegal activity.
For confirmed political junkies, this was the effect of pure grade medical stuff being applied directly to the receptors. Like one of those stoned conversations you hear at the end of a long night, when you feel the truth of every jibbering, over-indulged word from your companions. Except now it turns out that was all true and ‘they’ really were all in it together…
Within quick succession, the NOTW was closed and News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks resigned, leaving commentators to ponder what it could possibly all mean. Was News International unravelling after so long in control, or were these calculated moves to head off further scrutiny, especially the perceived threat of UK investigations spreading to the US? How far Brooks’ departure could help to avoid this scenario remains to be seen. Given Murdoch Senior’s skills as a political operator, it is surely premature to write the company’s obituaries.
Especially since, as an excellent article in the New Yorker noted, the tabloid culture dreamed up by Murdoch has taken over British newspapers so completely that old distinctions between tabloid and broadsheet have been pushed aside in the race to the bottom. While readers may be shocked at how far journalists went, within that culture, it is less surprising:
If your attitude toward the lives of others is that of a house burglar confronted by an open window; if you consider it part of your business to fabricate conversations where none exist; and if your boss treats his employees with a derision that they, following suit, extend to the subjects of their inquiries—if those elements are already in place, then the decision to, say, hack into someone’s cell phone is almost no decision at all. It is merely the next step. All that is required is the technology. What ensues may be against the law, but it goes no more against the grain of common decency than any other tool of your trade.
So while there is certainly more to come from News International and James Murdoch is likely to face more awkward questions, the newspaper readers of Britain should not lose sight of the key questions around what else these ‘rogue elements’ were up to and what the effects on the country’s democratic institutions were. The fallout of the scandal perhaps offers the best chance in a generation to create a fairer, more equitable society for Britain. As Freedom of Information campaigner, Heather Brooke writes:
This is why there is collusion between the elites of the police, politicians and the press. It is a cartel of information. The press only get information by playing the game. There is a reason none of the main political reporters investigated MPs’ expenses – because to do so would have meant falling out with those who control access to important civic information. The press – like the public – have little statutory right to information with no strings attached. Inside parliament the lobby system is an exercise in client journalism that serves primarily the interests of the powerful.
Freedom of information laws bust open the cartel. They give everyone an equal right to access information. You don’t have to take anyone out to lunch. You don’t have to pay anyone or suppress a damaging story to maintain a flow of information. You simply ask, with the full power of the law behind you.
She also notes:
Phone hacking, that’s just touching the surface of that whole industry in personal information which is vast, huge, it’s massive.
And Tom Watson, a backbench MP who as one of Gordon Brown’s henchmen had his own insider knowledge of the ‘dark arts’ and who now sits on the parliamentary committee investigating phone-hacking agrees:
I think we’re probably only about halfway through the number of revelations. I’m pretty certain there will be quite detailed stuff on other uses of covert surveillance. I suspect that emails will be the next scandal. And devices that track people moving around. That’s just starting to come out.
Unfortunately for those who are starting to get bored with phone hacking this story looks, in the tabloid parlance, to be one ‘with legs’.