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Monday, April 11, 2011 

Phone-hacking: and now?

There's a lovely insight provided by the exchange of letters between Keith Vaz and Rebekah Brooks as to just how important parliament felt the revelation that the press had previously paid the police for information was. It's taken a mere eight years before the chairman of the media select committee felt it was the time to ask the then editor of the Sun to clarify her remarks. Presumably not wanting to deal with two scandals at the same time, the ever fragrant Brooks has now made clear, just as clear as those who previously appeared before the committee from News International and denied phone-hacking had ever been committed by anyone other than Goodman and Mulcaire, that she was speaking in the historical sense.

Not that many police officers often need to be paid for giving information; most hacks, especially on local newspapers, will cultivate a source amongst the constabulary who can be relied upon to provide accurate background, often only in return for the occasional drink, as has been the case since time immemorial. Anyone though can plainly see that the Sun and News of the World often outdo all their rivals when it comes to crime exclusives, and not all of that is just the product of mutual scratching of backs. It did however hold News International in especially good stead when Goodman went too far by picking on royalty: as we have now seen, it seems politicians up to the very highest level were perfectly fair game, while accessing the most mundane and banal details about the lives of William and Harry was ultimately their undoing.

If you want to take it as far as some commentators, this could be our Watergate; if anything though, it's the exact inverse. Watergate was a plot uncovered by two journalists helped massively by an inside source who consequently managed to bring down the most powerful man in the world. This by contrast is a case of a far too powerful media organisation exerting its influence over politicians who were prepared to overlook anything if it meant they would continue to be nominally supported, while the police, mindful of the co-operation and good relationship that had been nurtured over a long period didn't want it to come to an end over something so seemingly petty.

This isn't to suggest that the tabloids or their parent companies and owners are more powerful than our politicians, a trap it's easy to fall into. At the very least they certainly shouldn't be. It's instead that politicians are terrified even now of being repeatedly crudely abused in the popular press, or doing anything which angers them more than just the day to day business of governing does. Not all politicians adhere to the belief that they have to be slavish in their toadying to the tabloids, but the great majority are, or at least give the appearance of it in order to make life easier for themselves. One who doesn't is Ken Clarke, currently being attacked on an almost daily basis in the Sun for his law and order policies, and whom you wouldn't bet on remaining as justice secretary come a reshuffle.

For one thing, we shouldn't pretend that such behaviour was only going on at News International titles. While it's difficult to be certain enough to be able to make sweeping statements about what was going on across the whole of what used to be Fleet Street, we have the What Price Privacy? reports from the Information Commissioner on the private investigator Steve Whittamore and his records, which more than suggest that journalists were making industrial use of blagging to gain access to private information on their targets. Some of those were requests which could well have been ultimately in the public interest, as phone hacking itself could be in the right circumstances; politicians in my view could quite legitimately have their voicemails listened in to if it was to prove wrongdoing other than sexual transgressions, which is of course what the tabloids were most interested in exposing.

The response to the scandal then ought to three-pronged: firstly, there should be a judicial inquiry with a remit going far beyond just the News of the World, which should set out to establish how the "dark arts" of blagging and phone-hacking became so widely used and abused; secondly there should be a royal commission or equivalent into the press, as the Press Complaints Commission has once again shown itself to be worse than useless, as self-regulation almost always is; and lastly, there needs to be a thorough, far-reaching debate into just what we ourselves want from a media that is more a part of our lives than ever before. The latter will almost certainly pose more intractable questions than the former.

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