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Thursday, September 09, 2010 

Labour's sudden discovery of the iniquities of Rupert Murdoch.

There are very few creatures as self-righteous and hypocritical as members of parliament (excepting bloggers, naturally). They will seize on even the slightest thing that they believe will give them a political advantage, regardless of how ridiculous it might well make them look in the short-term. That journalists often join them in this exercise in opportunism is understandable; it makes for easy copy, raises hackles and means they don't instead have to examine any current political issue in anything approaching depth. From this the Westminster "bubble" arises, where journalists and politicians find themselves equally cut off from the real world, while those outside of it regard them almost equally with contempt.

A case in point was the storm about Damian McBride, a chief aide to Gordon Brown, who had written an email containing unpleasant rumours about opposition politicians when asked for suggestions for a new Labour blog by Derek Draper. The blog, meant to imitate the success of Guido, was never established and the smears themselves never used, yet they somehow found their way to the aforementioned blogger, almost certainly after Draper's email account was hacked, funnily enough. While the outside public yawned at the fascinating revelation that politicians and their aides snipe from the gutters at each other, those who should have known better suggested it could, as usual change everything, despite everything sign to the contrary. Labour was always going to lose the election regardless of its record on spin, and so it came to pass.

Into the breach enters the phone-hacking scandal. When the story first re-emerged last year, although the media and culture committee reopened their investigation and there was some politically motivated sniping at Andy Coulson's position as David Cameron's chief spin doctor, most of the attention was instead focused on how one part of the print media was directly attacking another, something which rarely happens. Labour was then of course still in power, and still desperately trying to keep News International's papers on side, something else doomed to failure. Strangely, now that Labour finds itself in opposition, former ministers have suddenly discovered that not just News International, but the news media as a whole seems to be out of control, that "red-topped assassins" who are untouchable and unaccountable rule the roost and that MPs, yes, even MPs have been too scared to take them on.

It really has come to something when Kelvin MacKenzie, of all people, is talking almost as much as sense as these now complaining Labour lords and MPs, these Prescotts, these Watsons, these Bryants, these Jowells, all of whom have suddenly discovered the real evil in the land. The truth is that, as MacKenzie so rightly coined it, they either couldn't have cared less what the press was up to or put up with it while it was on their side. They stayed silent or openly prostrated themselves before the might of Rupert Murdoch, kissing his ring and taking it on the chin while their phones were hacked or their characters were slurred as long as his benevolence continued, as long as, despite everything, his papers continued to support the party's overall leadership. Now that Bryant and Watson have found themselves without their ministerial jobs it's finally time for revenge, revenge for the stupidity of putting photographs of yourself in your underpants up on a dating website, revenge for suggesting you knew about those McBridian smears. True, there was no public interest in exposing Bryant's love-life, just prurient interest, and Watson was more than right to bring libel actions against the newspapers which claimed he was in on the gossiping circle, yet their reasons now for going over-the-top, in more ways than one, are so transparent that News International itself must be delighted, for they know exactly how to paint these upstarts and their sanctimonious faux-outrage. These MPs don't really care about the phone hacking; they care about themselves, and staying above thorough scrutiny, and about limiting the overall power of the press. It isn't us, it's them.

What's more, News International and the press would have more than a point. The real reason to be disgusted at the excesses of the tabloid press in this country is not when they listen in one the voicemails of politicians, which could in some circumstances be absolutely in the public interest; it's when they hack the details of ordinary, everyday people, as described by the latest ex-News of the World reporter to come forward:

The paper was paying Glenn Mulcaire £2,000 a week, and they wanted their money's worth. For just about every story, they rang Glenn. It wasn't just tapping. It was routine. "Even if it was just a car crash or a house fire on a Saturday, they'd call Glenn, and he'd come back with ex-directory phone numbers, the BT list of friends and family and their addresses, lists of numbers called from their mobile phones. This was just commonplace. He was hacking masses of phones.

It's this behaviour that risks being obscured beneath the settling of scores and the low political manoeuvring. For every politico who might have had their voicemail accessed, there were those out there who found the press breathing down their neck just at the moment at which they had suffered perhaps the most painful event in their entire life. Yes, those now making the most noise can claim to be standing up for exactly these people, and it's true that MPs' correspondence with constituents has to remain confidential, something which the rife phone hacking and blagging certainly threatened, yet it's this exact sound and fury which risks undermining the entire current reinvestigation. If those responsible can portray this as just as another Westminster scandal, with MPs objecting to scrutiny not out of pure motives but because of what they've just been subjected to with the revealing of their expenses, then any possibility of any reform coming out of this is threatened with being lost.

More than anything, it's that these ex-ministers were formally in a position to do something then that rankles most. Now out of power, all they can do is sound off, with ever diminishing returns. They failed in their duty then; they should be incredibly careful in not doing so again by going from one extreme to the other now.

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