Monday, March 18, 2013 

The vilest thing.

So, err, what exactly did David Cameron's chucking of his toys out the pram on Thursday achieve?  As many expected, we woke up this morning to discover that a deal had been reached overnight, although it came sadly too late for the Mail and the Sun to redo their hysterical front pages predicting today would be The End of Press Freedom as We Know It.  The agreement, which Cameron is now introducing in the Commons, makes pretty damn plain that on all the major points, the very temporary Lib Dem-Labour alliance has been victorious.  We already knew that all three parties had accepted there would be a charter rather than statute, so although Cameron and the Tories will say they've won on that score, that wasn't what was being fought over when Cameron walked out on Thursday.

On the disagreements which supposedly led Cameron to call it quits, he seems to have simply caved in after some further reflection.  While the new regulation system won't then have statutory underpinning, it will only be able to be disbanded through majority vote in the Commons, although this doesn't necessarily apply to future parliaments.  More fundamentally, Clegg and Miliband also succeeded in ensuring the press won't be able to veto appointments to the new board of the regulator, something that could have made the replacement to the PCC almost exactly the same as its predecessor.  They've also ensured the regulator will be able to "direct" where papers have to print prominent apologies, rather than "require", although frankly you still to have to wonder if such measures will be abided by.


Which will be the ultimate test of the new system.  Leveson and everything that's gone with it will be meaningless if what we end up with is a system which still isn't followed.  You'd like to think that all the caterwauling from some sections of the media about the end of free speech means they genuinely do fear that the new regulator will have teeth, and the news that the Newspaper Society has issued a statement on behalf of the press barons that they are yet undecided as to whether to endorse the charter might encourage this view.  It's difficult to see them rejecting it outright though at this point, especially as public pressure for them to sign up is likely to be high.
 

Especially when, once they've reflected properly on it, all the charter will do is put in place regulation similar to that in Ireland, and which most of the newspapers operate under through their specific editions for the country.  The one thing they may well legitimately fear is the exemplary damages proposed for those who remain outside the regulator, although it remains to be seen what publishing "with reckless disregard for a claimant's rights" will mean in practice.  If it means that Private Eye or similar small publications could potentially be ran out of business for libelling the powerful, as indeed James Goldsmith tried to achieve back in the 70s, then this is a system which deserves to be boycotted.

The point remains that however much the likes of the Telegraph now complain about the imposition of regulation, they did nothing whatsoever to attempt to rein in the excesses of the tabloids while the PCC was in operation.  Murdoch's Times was similarly blind for the most part, however much it has since attempted to signal its independence.  The news today that the Sun was supplied with the stolen phone of Siobhan McDonagh, which it subsequently "lost" after accessing the text messages on it, all of which happened back in 2010 during the current editorship of Dominic Mohan, makes clear that all is still not well.  


This makes it all the more incredible that the Sun splashed today with the words of Churchill, that "the press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen".  This is of course the same Sun newspaper which supported Blair and then Gordon Brown in their attempts to introduce 90 and then 42 days detention without charge, and which has never so much as once opposed the attempt of any government to limit civil liberties with the supposed aim of preventing crime.  Murdoch only cares about press freedom as much as it enables him to make money, as demonstrated when he dropped the BBC from his satellite operations in China following criticism from the authorities.

The same silliness emanates from Iain Martin and his stated view that it's "terrifying how quickly we've slid from a free press to politicians stitching up press regulation".  Quite apart from how the press have had decades to get self-regulation right and have either refused to or failed at every attempt, his claim that the Americans would be bewildered by the idea of regulating the press is daft when you consider the fact that their press long since moved away from the sensationalist model we're so used to, and that they've also long been sycophantic towards power rather than anywhere near as boisterous as our newspapers.  This said, nothing voted on today is going to make the powerful less accountable: the idea that this is revenge by politicians simply doesn't stand up. Some obviously would like the press to be weaker, but power is shifting in any case.  Newspapers might still break the news and run campaigns, yet increasingly it's genuine public outcry rather than media manfactured outrage that achieves results, as indeed led to Leveson in the first place.


As for how this affects the various party leaders, much depends now on how the media responds.  If they decide that Cameron has essentially acquiesced to the demands of the other side, then it's hardly going to increase their already low opinion of him. They may in time thank him for heading off full statutory underpinning, but plainly not right now.  Similarly, Miliband and Clegg can continue to expect hostile coverage, although whether either care at this point is dubious.  Cameron also looks weak: after all but saying bring it on on Thursday, prepared to lose a vote as long as he did so while defending press freedom, it looks as though he backed down, afraid to lose it so soundly.  He must also be concerned at how Clegg and Miliband worked together when there's surely potential for them to do the same in the future.

Only time will tell whether today really does signal the point at which the press in this country finally realises that it can no longer get away with doing exactly as it pleases, with no regard for privacy, the law, or for the feelings of those whose lives they intrude into.  It is though the point at which our politicians have finally called the bluff of the barons.  In that sense, and considering our past, it's a change to savour.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013 

Press regulation: is anyone still paying attention?

As an indication of just how interminable the almost four month long talks on implementing the Leveson report have been, you'll note I haven't dedicated a single post to the report since it was published. When even I find a section of politics I'm normally fascinated by so unutterably tedious, the sheer boredom that emanates from it must surely be sufficient to kill small mammals unlucky enough to be in earshot.

On this level alone, it's difficult to begrudge the decision by David Cameron to bring the cross-party discussions to a close and force a vote on the proposal for a royal charter as it stands. It's also doubtful just how much of a difference there now is between the parties: they all seem to have accepted the establishment of a new regulator via charter rather than statute, and only appear to disagree on ensuring that the charter can't be picked apart by politicians in the future, as well as just how independent the new board will be.

There is definitely then an element of cynicism in Cameron's pulling of the plug now, regardless of the claims otherwise.  He's had a miserable couple of weeks since his party came third in Eastleigh, and yesterday took the equivalent of a sound thrashing at prime minister's questions from a mocking Ed Miliband. By claiming to be defending press freedom he's quickly won the support of the press barons, with only the Graun, Independent and FT concerned at how once again there seems to have been a stitch-up between the government and the same old guard who've never accepted reform in the past.

Indeed, Cameron has played an extremely weak hand with greater political skill than on almost anything comparable of late.  He's apparently succeeded in stopping statute, has courted a press that for the most part has always been suspicious of him and has now forced a vote that could help to reinforce his authority.  And again, it's difficult to criticise him for much of this: no government would or should tolerate the hijacking of multiple bills in an effort to force the issue.  Lord Puttnam's sabotaging of the defamation act is especially enraging when it should be complementing Leveson rather than damaging the chances of either becoming law.

For as much as Cameron went back on his word to implement Leveson as long as what was recommended wasn't "bonkers", far more foolish was Labour's pledge to enshrine it in full when they couldn't possibly have read the thing.  Also counter-productive has been the Hacked Off campaign, which hasn't seemed to know when to stop, always saying that anything less than statute would be an effective betrayal of the victims of intrusion and hacking. The barons might well deserve statute, but all the other publishers and media groups don't.  My position has always been that we need a genuinely independent regulator, able to investigate both complaints and initiate their own if necessary, as well as one that can impose fines and order where corrections and apologies should be printed.  If all this can be achieved with a charter, as it seems it can, then statute simply isn't needed.

On some measures, Leveson and the government in fact want to go too far.  The idea of exemplary damages for those who refuse to join the new regulator if they are then taken to court sounds fine if it's Richard Desmond's Northern and Shell that once again decides not to join, but not if it also means that Private Eye is potentially put in peril, as the magazine has up to now always been outside the PCC and seems unlikely to join this time either.  The last thing we need at the moment is the kind of law that could make new papers or weeklies completely uneconomical, especially as newspaper circulations continue to plummet.

Cameron's gamble is that this has now become a zero sum game.  If it comes a vote and he wins, then he can expect at least some gratitude from the Tory press, while it will also show he can still unite his party on some issues.  If he loses, then he can blame the perfidy of the Lib Dems and say that they and the Labour party want to dilute press freedom for their own political advantage.  What though if Cameron is wrong, and a loss is instead seen as the ultimate evidence that his authority is ebbing away, or, if they manage to scrape through, the public sees it as more proof of politicians wanting to suck up to media proprietors rather than doing the right thing?

In all likelihood, one suspects that Cameron believes his move will force Nick Clegg into moving towards his position, not wanting to vote against the government so soon after his party refused to back the boundary review in revenge for the dropping of Lords reform.  It may instead come down to who blinks first, and I can't help but feel there's likely to be some sort of compromise reached before Monday is out.  Whether it means we will finally have regulation worthy of the name remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012 

Newsnight and Duncroft: still far from the full story.

The Pollard inquiry into the entire Newsnight affair has, as recent reports have been wont to do, reached pretty much the conclusions it was expected it would.  Nick Pollard, formerly of Sky News, dismisses the notion that there was managerial pressure to drop the investigation into Savile's alleged activities at the Duncroft approved school, while finding that Newsnight's now ex-editor Peter Rippon made the wrong decision, mainly on the grounds that the CPS had investigated one of the claims about Duncroft and decided there was insufficient evidence to bring charges, to spike Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean's story.

It most certainly doesn't end there though, and there are more than enough uncertainties in the report for those suitably inclined to reach the conclusion that there was in fact pressure put on Rippon.  Both Jones and MacKean certainly believed there was, although Jones has since admitted he had no evidence for claiming at the time that this was the case.  


Key to the entire chain of events is a series of emails between Rippon and Stephen Mitchell, the deputy head of news, on the 29th of November last year (paragraph 91, page 68 onwards).  In the first, Rippon outlined the investigation and when Newsnight was planning to transmit the story, along with a request as to whether he could talk to Mitchell in more depth on the phone later.  As Pollard notes, this email and its follow-up are positive about the story, without any indication that Rippon at this stage was having doubts.  Remarkably, both men are uncertain as to whether the proposed phone call took place; Mitchell cannot remember it, with Pollard noting acidly that he "found the frequency with which Mr Mitchell's memory failed him surprising" at a different point in the report, while Rippon believes he "probably did" talk with Mitchell.

Whether it did or not, this was the point at which Rippon began to properly voice his doubts.  The following morning he emailed Jones, shifting the onus onto establishing that the CPS "did drop the case for the reason the women say", that Savile was too old and infirm to be charged.  Rippon's explanation for his change of heart, given to the inquiry, was that he felt the report as it stood relied too much on the evidence of Karin Ward, referred to throughout as [R1], how the interviews with the other victims had been conducted over the phone by an inexperienced trainee reporter, and how the evidence could be undermined by how some of the women had shared and discussed their experiences among themselves previously on a social networking site (paragraph 100, page 72).


Pollard examines three explanations for Rippon's shift: that he had been very keen on the story but something happened overnight to change his mind, influenced by Mitchell; that he changed his mind based purely on his "pondering it overnight"; or that he had overstated the story to Mitchell in his emails, despite having doubts, which had now come fully to the fore.  Pollard concludes that the first explanation is the most likely, that a conversation did take place, and that it was something Mitchell said that made him re-examine what his team had so far put together.  He doesn't believe, however, that what Mitchell said was "inappropriate or that it was influenced by any wish on Mr Mitchell's part to protect the Savile tribute programmes".

We are then dealing with hypotheticals, leaving more than enough room for doubt to creep in.  Add how Pollard accepts that Rippon made comments to Jones and MacKean along the lines of how if the "bosses weren't happy" [it couldn't go ahead] and "he could not go to the wall on this one", even if again, he found no evidence that he was being put under pressure, with Helen Boaden, the head of news, saying she thought it could have "arse-covering" on his part, putting the blame elsewhere, and it isn't the clean bill of health it looks at first sight.  My opinion remains, as it was at the outset, that this was almost certainly an editor deciding on his own that there wasn't enough evidence, but I don't blame anyone for suspecting there was more going on than has come out even now.  It still doesn't explain fully though why Rippon spiked the report rather than urge his team to investigate further, or indeed why Jones believed that it was either drop the story, or "leave the BBC".  He has instead decamped to Panorama.  Lack of resources, as Rippon claimed, just doesn't cut it, savage cuts to Newsnight or not.

Pollard's other main conclusion on the initial Newsnight investigation, that Rippon's decision was wrong and that Newsnight should have broken the story about Savile being an abuser 11 months before ITV did, also looks strong on the surface.  After all, Exposure used more or less the same evidence as collected by Jones and MacKean, which has in turn lead to over 400 people coming forward with allegations about Savile.  There are reasons though to suspect that at the time, Rippon was perfectly within his rights not to proceed with transmission, and one which has came to light since.  His reasons for having doubts, although undoubtedly expressed more lucidly through hindsight, are more than respectable: the only on camera interview they had was with Ward; they didn't have any corroborating evidence from those who worked at the school; the interviews with the other women, should, ideally, have been conducted in person,  and without there being any possibility of their being led; and some of the other women had discussed their experiences on Friends Reunited, increasing the possibility of the allegations becoming blurred.

Since then we've learned that the letter from Surrey police, which Newsnight knew of but never saw, saying the case was dropped because of Savile's age and infirmity, was a forgeryAnna Racoon has also, in a series of blog posts, raised a number of doubts about some of the testimony.  A resident at Duncroft herself during the mid 60s, she denies that Savile ever visited the school while she was there, refuting the allegations made by one woman there at the same time.  She also maintains that Karin Ward must have been 16 when she appeared on Clunk Click, even if all her other claims are true.  Raccoon, regardless of being suckered in by the Libertarian Party previously, seems to be highly credible.  She may well be utterly wrong, but there are doubts there, and while the police had not previously investigated Ward's allegations, they had some of the other claims made by the others who had made contact on FR, deciding there wasn't enough evidence to pursue them.  It is almost certainly the case, as Raccoon notes, that Savile was a child abuser, an ephebophile (or at least attracted to post-pubescent children) if not a paedophile, but it has not yet been proven that he committed any offences either at Duncroft or with girls from the school.

These doubts bring us into some very uncertain territory.  Even if the Duncroft allegations are exaggerated, it's certainly the case that some of the claims made against Savile have to be accurate.  It's also unlocked memories which many have either struggled with ever since or tried to forget, casting the 60s and 70s in a different light.  While some of this will have had a negative effect on those who rather wouldn't have been reminded of what happened to them or what they got up to, for many talking about it, perhaps for the first time, will have resulted in the opposite.  As someone who struggles with his own past, I can't present opening up about everything as being wholly positive, or always for the best.  For many though it will have helped to exorcise demons, or been the first time they thought they might have been believed.  Negatives as there will have been, I would wager the positives will have outweighed them.

You can then respect Rippon entirely for the decision he made, even if you can't agree with it knowing now how it would have played out.  It would certainly have saved the BBC from the nightmare it's gone through over the last couple of months, one which Pollard finds it brought entirely on itself.  If anything, the BBC's management structure is even more Byzantine than we first thought: it takes him 11 pages (9-21) to describe it and the managed programmes list.  Away from Newsnight, one of the biggest failures he found was that the Savile investigation was moved off of this list, a list set-up in the aftermath of Hutton through which any controversial programmes or ones with risk to the BBC could be known about and shared across the organisation.  Stephen Mitchell decided it should be taken off the list, although he couldn't explain why to Pollard.  Pollard decides it was because Mitchell believed it was so sensitive that it shouldn't be widely known with the BBC, something that led in turn to the disasters that followed.

Also pilloried is George Entwistle, who if he hadn't been forced out would have had to resign now.  Pollard criticises him for taking no action after being warned by Helen Boaden about the Savile investigation, when it would have been the obvious opportunity to postpone the planned tributes until more was known.  He also didn't inquire further when told by the head of "knowledge commissioning", asking about whether they should start on a obituary programme, that he "saw the real truth", having worked with Savile as his first job at the BBC.  He was also at fault over the blog from Rippon which came to be seen within the BBC almost as gospel, despite the inaccuracies in it which MacKean and Jones pointed out almost immediately, failing to address it quickly enough, and then using it effectively to shield himself from criticism, putting it all on Rippon.

Pollard's recommendations are just as predictable.  He thinks the role of the director general as editor-in-chief is outdated, requiring they take responsibility while being unable to step in and make a difference.  The well known problem of too many managers and too rigid an adherence to going up one rung on the ladder at a time needs to be sorted once and for all, although Pollard suggests getting rid of the deputy director general was a mistake.  He sees no reason why there should continue to be "Chinese Walls", such as how Entwistle insisted it was no business of his knowing any more detail about the Savile investigation than what Helen Boaden told him.  He also wonders whether part of the problem might be that almost all of those involved had spent more or less their whole careers at the Beeb; this can and will be overstated, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if the BBC cast its net wider in the search for new recruits.

More important than these is Pollard's advice as a journalist: to be ready to collect more evidence if what is gathered is not enough, and to be prepared to hand over a story to another programme if it needs more work.  Rippon could have asked Jones and MacKean to do more work, rather than spiking what they had, or he could have suggested giving what they had to Panorama to see what they could do with it.  He did neither.  The same is true of the McAlpine affair, except in reverse.  As with so often in the past, these were avoidable mistakes which were made worse by mismanagement.  Whether it will have a long-term impact on a corporation which is still leagues ahead of almost all its journalistic competitors remains to be seen.  For now, deputy heads have rolled again.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012 

Free press with all four volumes.

Despite everything that was said beforehand and will no doubt be bellowed from the editorials of the majority of the press tomorrow, Sir Brian Leveson's report is both cautious and carefully calculated.  When he started chairing the inquiry, he made clear that he had no intention of doing so if his final recommendations were to be ignored as the previous 6 commissions into the press more or less had been.  The almost 2,000 pages he's served up, and in such a relatively short period of time, itself extraordinary considering how long we've waited for other inquiries to report, reflect this precisely.  Politicians and the police are criticised, but for the most part in lawyerly language which declines to condemn them outright.  The tabloid press by contrast is excoriated, and considering that Leveson was limited in what he could write on phone hacking due to the upcoming trials, he couldn't have gone much further.

They can hardly say they weren't warned, and they also can't complain that it wasn't pretty much apparent from early on that statutory underpinning would be one of the key recommendations.  It cannot be stated often enough, and Leveson himself makes this point repeatedly, that the media as a whole have had plenty of opportunities to institute an effective, genuinely independent form of self-regulation.  They flunked the test in 1992, they failed again following the death of Princess Diana, and they refused to even admit there was a problem after both the jailing of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire and the publication of the What Price Privacy? report.  Indeed, the Press Complaints Commission all but guaranteed its own extinction when rather than criticise the News of the World, it chose to attack the Guardian for supposedly exaggerating its reports on the scale of hacking at the now closed paper.

Even after all this, some sections of the press have devoted their time to attacking Leveson personally rather than accepting that for too long there was a complete lack of ethics and morals in old Fleet Street.  Away from the News International stable, which has for the most part kept quiet, recognising if they were to get too involved in the "Free Speech Network" it would be taken even less seriously than it has been, the Daily Mail has upped the ante in their stead.

Long ago alerted to how heavily he would be personally criticised by Leveson, Paul Dacre gave the go-ahead for a fantastically amusing 12-page long hatchet job on adviser to the inquiry Sir David Bell, variously linked by the paper to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Common Purpose, the Media Standards Trust and the Orwell Prize, which dared to give an award to Johann Hari before it was rescinded.  Common Purpose for those not aware is one of the conspiratorial right's favourite organisations, as they deign to see its machinations behind everyone and everything vaguely on the left.  You expect the likes of James Delingpole to fall for such crap, but not Dacre, for the simple reason that he's not an idiot.  When he then splashes with a piece that describes CP as "a giant octopus" and "a quasi-masonic nexus", the only explanation has to be quite how rattled he is at the potential for a change in tabloid culture.

It's on this culture that Leveson is at his strongest.  His identification of the "aggressive defence" often made by the tabloids when they are subjected to even the merest criticism is spot on (pages 481-2 of Volume II), as is his noting of three separate parts to this defence, both the overt types of intimidation, such as the messages sent to Richard Peppiatt and the mother of Hugh Grant's child, the fear of or actual retaliation in the papers themselves, such as when JK Rowling's daughter was pictured in the press after she asked them not to publish her address, and lastly ad hominem criticism on third parties, such as the attacks on Justice Eady after he ruled in favour of Max Mosley.  Paul Dacre notably described Eady as "amoral" in a speech to the Society of Editors, a lecture he concluded with a whine about Nick Davies' Flat Earth News and how criticism of the "popular press" was doing huge, unjust harm to it.  There's been no suggestion Dacre has changed his mind since.

Where Leveson fails to do himself justice is in those half-hearted criticisms of both politicians and police.  David Cameron crowed in the Commons about how his party had been cleared of doing a deal with News International over the takeover of Sky in exchange for support at the election, something the judge was never going to be able to prove when any such deal was hardly going to be written down and all those involved would always strenuously deny any such thing took place.  Such deals are almost always conducted with a nod and a wink, not with a paper trail.

Cameron additionally claimed Jeremy Hunt had been cleared of all wrongdoing, which isn't quite the full truth.  Yes, Leveson does find there wasn't "any credible evidence of actual bias on the part of Mr Hunt", but he is highly critical of the role played by Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith in his dealings with News International's lobbyist Fred Michel, which do give rise to a "perception of bias".  As Labour argued at the time, ministers are responsible for their SpAds, and the idea that Hunt didn't know what Smith was doing is absurd.  If it hadn't been for the Graun's exposure of the Milly Dowler hacking, News International would now almost certainly be in full control of BSkyB, with all that would have entailed for press plurality.  Hunt would have been more than happy had the takeover gone ahead.

Much as Leveson's recommendations were expected, so was David Cameron's refusal to countenance any form of statutory regulation, including that of a simple underpinning.  To be fair to Cameron, he is in an almost impossible position: go along with legislation and he enrages a media which is already none too enthusiastic about him, as well as the Tory right; reject it and he risks being defeated by an unholy alliance of the Liberal Democrats, Labour and rebel Tories, while also going back on a pledge he made to support Leveson's proposals unless they were "bonkers".

The recommendations are not bonkers, but Cameron is right to be extremely wary.  The current form of press self-regulation has never been anything of the kind, and it's also the case that the current proposals for reform from Lords Hunt and Black are nowhere near good enough.  They are the continuation of the failed cartel of the past, as the Independent, Evening Standard, Guardian and Financial Times have also recognised.  Leveson's recommendations on how they can be improved are excellent, and to judge from Trevor Kavanagh's appearance on Newsnight, even the old Fleet Street die-hards seems to realise that nothing less than their implementation will be sufficient.  If an agreement can be reached between media groups, then Leveson's proposed statutory underpinning might not be necessary, as the judge himself makes clear.

If this banging of heads together fails to result in an improvement, however, there seems little option other than to implement the statutory part of Leveson's proposals.  For all the hysterical bawling about Mugabe and Iran, and how even the merest form of legislation could lead to a slippery slope, something that isn't always a fallacious argument, we really should try everything other than statute.  The point surely though is that we've been here before.  To descend into the clichéd analogies of the day, much as we don't want to cross the rubicon, staying in the last chance saloon for one more round isn't going to cut it either.  


Unless a personal intervention from a cross-party delegation can convince the press groupings to put aside their personal differences and hang-ups to organise a truly independent form of self-regulation, then the government is going to have to step in.  This might be horrendously unfair on the former broadsheets, most magazines and the regional press, but it's been the hubris of the populars and their editors that have led inexorably to this point.  Nemesis has duly followed.  The least Dacre, Desmond, Murdoch and Trinity Mirror can do now is ensure that their failures and abuses don't lead to restrictions across the board.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010 

Schadenfreude at the press standards, privacy and libel report.

As a nation, we tend to enjoy schadenfreude, even if we're not familiar with the word itself: recall how the 1997 election was perhaps defined by what became known as the Portillo moment, when one of the most egregious Tories of the age lost his seat in parliament. Maybe the humiliation of that night was what caused Portillo to mellow, to the ultimate benefit of himself as well as the country at large. Jeffrey Archer's downfall, jailed for perjury was another such occasion.

I hope you'll excuse me then feeling such an emotion at the publishing last night of the culture, media and sport committee's report into press standards, privacy and libel, which includes a hefty section on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It's not often that parliamentary committees make such damning attacks on the media at large as this one does, nor ones which are so ferociously accurate. Anyone who had looked at the evidence given to the committee by Tom Crone, Colin Myler, Stuart Kuttner and Andy Coulson would have noted just how pathetically inadequate it was: here were 4 men who were either editing the News of the World, combing the copy to ensure that it wasn't either libellous or defamatory, or working on the executive side, and you could have been forgiven for imagining that they had never even entered the paper's offices, such was their apparent ignorance of what had been going on. The committee, to its credit, cut through the swathes of denials and described their evidence as filled with "deliberate obfuscation", while they also seemed to be suffering from "collective amnesia". In a court room they would have been derided by a judge as unreliable witnesses. We should remember after all that these are some of the people who pass judgement on other individuals for their transgressions and who have the power to ruin lives if they choose to do so. It really was about time that they were cut down to size in such a way.

More amusing still, if it wasn't so tragic, has been the response of News International, which has been to respond to the committee's accusations of "deliberate obfuscation" with err, "deliberate obfuscation", as discussed in more detail in this Sun Lies post. It's incredibly lame to continue to claim, as NI has, that both the committee and the Guardian have produced no new evidence of phone-hacking at the paper, which the report itself deals with in detail in paragraphs 492 and 493. Just as low has been to attack the committee system as a whole because of the tenacity with which the MPs have carried out their task, claiming that the entire thing was a stitch-up between the Guardian and the Labour MPs on the committee, out to get Andy Coulson as he's now the chief Tory spin doctor. NI has pounced on the one thing on which the committee didn't unanimously agree upon, which was to mention Coulson's bullying of Matt Driscoll, which the Tory MPs felt wasn't relevant and so divided on political lines on. If the committee was out to get Coulson, then they did a pretty poor job, deciding that he in fact didn't know about the phone hacking, something which is about as ridiculous as it gets. If he didn't know, then he wasn't the editor in any real sense, as someone at the paper was authorising the huge amounts which Glenn Mulcaire was being paid for his work. The only reasonable explanation for why he wouldn't have known was that he deliberately ensured that he didn't, in a ultimately futile attempt to be able to evade responsibility if the hacking was uncovered. The report nonetheless says that he was right to resign.

Most fascinating of all is what this tells you about possible collusion between the Metropolitan police and the Screws. Why was the eventual prosecution limited, despite the evidence of phone-hacking on such an industrial scale to just the interception of voicemail messages of members of the royal family? Was it because they were the easiest to prove, and Mulcaire going too far in targeting the very height of the British establishment, something that simply couldn't be countenanced, or that the Met didn't want to put its "special relationship" with the Murdoch press in peril? Clearly from the Guardian's subsequent freedom of information request we know that the investigations into the phone-hacking went far beyond just that which eventually reached court, and that some of the phone companies involved informed those whose voicemail was believed to have been intercepted. Why then was the Met so swift to dismiss the need for any further investigation or even a proper review of its original work when we now subsequently know that John Yates didn't provide the full picture either in his evidence to the committee or in his initial communications after the Guardian's allegations?

Likewise, the non-investigation by the Press Complaints Commission was as clear an example as you could possibly get of a regulator which was materially misled by the NotW covering itself through embarrassment rather than going after a media organisation which was breaking the law on such a grand scale. The only thing that can be said in its defence is that it's true that much of the media in this country, especially the tabloid side, was operating in a similar fashion at the time, whether through phone-hacking which the NotW excelled at or through the use of private detectives who blagged information from government databases, as exemplified by the Stephen Whittamore prosecution. It has been perhaps unfair to target just the NotW in such a way when the Daily Mail were the leaders in the use of blagged information, but they were smart enough to get someone outside the actual organisation to do their dirty work for them, while the NotW personally employed Mulcaire to perform the "dark arts".

This entire episode has shown up the media in this country for what it actually is, as if it really needed stating: loathsome hypocrites who preach from their pulpits even as they themselves break the law if necessary just to get information which can't even begin to be described as in the public interest, or indeed of any interest whatsoever. There's a huge difference between the methods say which the Guardian used to bring down Jonathan Aitken, which involved diving through dustbins and the interception of voicemail messages of the likes of Gordon Taylor and Max Clifford, either for unutterably lame "kiss and tells" or for personal advantage in the ever ongoing war of spin and counter-spin.

If there's one thing to be taken from this, it's that the committee itself believes that the media has since cleaned up its act, such was the shock of Goodman and Mulcaire being made scapegoats for an industry which was out of control. I am far more sceptical: newspapers, especially the tabloids, in such a cut-throat game and one which is only getting more desperate as circulations fall are only likely to resort to ever more underhand methods to make up the difference. The "dark arts" are now been even more covered up and forced deeper underground, and as the likes of News International remain unaccountable, as epitomised by their response to the committee's findings, nothing is likely to change, as enjoyable as it is to watch them squirm and react in such a way.

P.S.

The report as a whole is excellent, and it's well worth reflecting on its conclusions and recommendations, but that's for another day. What I will say is that the recommendations made for beefing up the Press Complaints Commission, enabling it to fine newspapers and even potentially stop them publishing for a day for the most serious breaches of the code, while welcome and probably the only way to make self-regulation work, are doomed to failure. The PCC itself rejects any such plans, and in any case, the media groups which fund it would never allow such penalties, which actually might make them think twice before repeating the type of coverage which occurred during the Madeleine McCann hysteria, from being implementable. I've been quoted as being involved in the petition calling for changes to the PCC's code, but while I was on the email discussion list, I made no contribution to the discussion and have not signed anything. This is for the simple reason that it's simply impossible to reform a cartel, which is what the PCC unquestionably is. The only way to deal with cartels is to abolish them. Self-regulation has had more than enough chances to work, and it has failed every single successive test.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009 

Yates in not trying very hard shocker.

If you needed confirmation that the Met's investigation into the News of the Screws wasn't as thorough as they claimed, and that the "re-investigation" into it after the Graun's allegations was even less so, you only had to see both John Yates and Chief Superintendent Philip Williams before the culture committee today. Apparently the transcript of messages on Gordon Taylor's voicemail, provided for Neville Thurlbeck, wasn't a "viable live inquiry", despite Taylor and his legal adviser subsequently successfully securing the largest privacy payout from News International in legal history in this country. Just to add insult to injury, Yates then went on to say that there was no evidence of Thurlbeck reading the message, or that it could even be another Neville, to which Adam Price acidly stated that they would find out how many Nevilles were working at the Screws at the time before publishing their report.

Price though does seem to have scored a direct hit with his bringing up of the story involving a message left on Harry's voicemail by his brother pretending to be Harry's then girlfriend, Chelsy Davy. Philip Williams stated that although the police had never been able to prove it, again raising the spectre of them not trying very hard, they had "solid reasons" for suspecting that their phones had been tapped into as well as those of the royal aides which led to the conviction of both Mulcaire and Goodman. The can of worms opened up by the Graun has by no means yet been dumped in the dustbin of history.

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Monday, August 31, 2009 

Steve Whittamore's database exposed and Murdoch's victory.

Finally then, we learn some of the identities of those who were targeted by various national newspapers and magazines via Steve Whittamore, the details of which have previously been kept back by the Information Commissioner's office.

And what an obvious collection of searches in the wider public interest they are. Whether blagging their way into BT's databases to get home addresses and ex-directory numbers, the social security system, the DVLA or the police national computer, these are names to conjure with: the former director general of the National Trust, the Southampton football manager, the father of a Big Brother contestant, the former head of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, MP Clive Betts, Wayne Rooney's mother, Carol Vorderman's brother, Andrew Motion's ex-wife.

To lay off the sarcasm for a moment, some of these uses of a private detective to obtain information could have been in the public interest: politicians from all the main parties are also represented, among them Peter Mandelson, Peter Hain, Chris Patten, Peter Kilfoyle, a couple of then union leaders. Most though are just scurrilous attempts to back up gossip: Joanna Lumley, sainted by the newspapers this year for her role in the campaign to allow Gurkhas to move here, was targeted repeatedly in attempts to find out who the father of her child was. Ian Hislop seems to have been had his details accessed mainly because of a vendetta against him by the paparazzo Jason Fraser, while Frances Lawrence, wife of the murdered headmaster Philip was also attempted to be tracked down, and so the list goes on.

Some of the requests, as Nick Davies notes, appear to be down to either sheer laziness or the need to meet deadlines: some of the information sought is almost certainly freely available on the electoral register. Most though just seem to be fishing expeditions, trying to find what information they can get on someone, possibly to back up a story, possibly just in case they ever need it. The other thing that Guardian's obtaining of the information signifies is that it also knows exactly which journalists or even editors were themselves requesting information, as Whittamore also kept their details, maybe in case he was caught and so he could attempt to bring them down with him. Private Eye has already revealed that Rebekah Wade herself made a personal request to Whittamore for information while she was editor of the News of the World; doubtless there are other "big" names in here that would cause a major stir were they to be released.

It also brings into sharp relief James Murdoch's rant at the weekend:

Above all we must have genuine independence in news media. …independence is characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency. Independence of faction, industrial or political. Independence of subsidy, gift and patronage.

It doesn't of course matter that Murdoch himself is the purest example of patronage in a supposedly free and independent market, but put that to one side. The "independence" and lack of any supervision which he craves leads directly to the abuses detailed above. It leads not to the public service journalism which the BBC provides, but to the trash which fills the Sun and News of the World, which in turn subsidise his "serious" newspapers. His market fundamentalism is just as bad as the BBC would be if it was his caricature of it. Little wonder that News International's reaction to the Guardian's revelations of widespread phone hacking were so ferocious: they'd been caught when they need to be seen, in Tony Blair's parlance, as purer than pure. The sad thing is that with an incoming Conservative government, desperate to buy off the Murdoch press, we might well see Young Murdoch's dreams become something close to reality.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009 

Phone hacking: Rebekah Wade gets snared.

As might have been expected, Private Eye (1241) has some additional information on the phone hacking scandal:

"... There was, however, one bit of evidence he [Nick Davies, at the Graun's appearance before the Culture committee last week] omitted. A file seized by the Information Committee from private investigator Steve Whittamore in 2003, which was later obtained by lawyers for Professional Footballers' Association boss Gordon Taylor, included a personal request for Whittamore to trace someone's address via his phone number. The request came from Rebekah Wade when she was editor of the News of the Screws.

Davies was asked to keep quiet about this by the man who accompanied him to the committee hearing, Grauniad editor Alan Rusbridger, who feared that the skirmishes between the Grauniad and News International would turn into all-out war if there were any mention of the flame-haired weirdo who has now become NI's chief executive.

This may also be why the Guardian has yet to reveal that the secret payment of £700,000 in damages and costs to buy the silence of Gordon Taylor was not a mere executive order. It was decided by the directors of News Group Newspapers Ltd, the NI subsidary which owns the Sun and the Screws, at their board meeting on 10 June last year. If their involvement were revealed, it could cause grave embarrassment for the directors of News Group Newspapers Ltd - not least one James Murdoch."


The latter more or less came out yesterday, when we learned that James Murdoch had known about the settlement and agreed with it. The Wade revelation is though entirely new, and while there is no indication that Wade was using Whittamore for anything specifically illegal, it is an example that editors at the Screws knew about the "dark arts" and even personally used them. That makes it all the more ridiculous that both Andy Coulson and Tom Crone were so ignorant about what was happening all around them. It's also surprising that Wade herself was so tenacious in accusing the Graun of being "deliberately misleading" when they had such information on her; either she knew they wouldn't dare use it, as PE suggests, or she decided to try to tough it out. Either that, or she didn't know.

By far the best comment on yesterday's reprise of Manuel from Fawlty Towers was from Peter Burden, who also interpreted their body language.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009 

Deny nothing, deny everything, know nothing.

After the statement from News International over a week ago, and last Sunday's News of the World editorial, you might have expected that Tom Crone, Colin Myler, Stuart Kuttner and Andy Coulson might have came out defiant and dismissive to the Commons culture committee, especially after last week's bravura performance from Nick Davies.

The News of the World stance appears to have now changed three times. First it was to deny nothing; then it was to deny everything; now it seems to be know nothing. The four men were remarkable reticent, or remarkably ill-informed, perhaps deliberately. The only real fire came when first Tom Crone objected to Tom Watson's presence on the committee (under the "hated" Human Rights Act!), as he's currently taking legal action against the Sun, then Kuttner objected to Philip Davies, as he had connected Kuttner's resignation with the Guardian's revelations.

Predictably, all involved denied knowing anything about the phone hacking; all could be blamed on those who had since left, or those who are still at the paper strangely don't seem to be able to remember anything about it. The junior reporter who wrote the email which Davies revealed last week couldn't remember much about it, and was currently in Peru, Neville Thurlbeck couldn't remember receiving it, and there was no trace of the email on the NotW email system. The more cynical might imagine that was all very convenient. Thurlbeck was only supposed to be involved in the Taylor story with a view to door-stepping Taylor to confirm it. Coulson, later on, confirmed that he couldn't remember anything about a story involving Taylor.

Alongside the denials and non-denials, new information that did come out was that both Mulcaire and Goodman received payments along with their dismissals. You would have thought that being convicted of criminal offences while doing their job would have enabled them to be fired for gross misconduct, but apparently the payments were made in line with employment law and certainly not to buy their silence. James Murdoch, if not Murdoch himself, knew about the settlement with Gordon Taylor. Adam Price, who had discovered a story in the paper by-lined as by Goodman and Thurlbeck had a direct line that could only have come from Prince William's voicemail. Coulson of course couldn't remember the story, and Crone doesn't remember "page 7" stories, while Goodman's lawyer said in court nothing was ever published as a result of the voicemail hacking.

Some of the denials though were just ridiculous. Crone claims that he hadn't even heard of Mulcaire until Goodman was arrested, had never heard of phones being hacked and had never heard of payments for illegal activity. He seems to have been the only other person in Fleet Street, along with Andy Coulson, to have been so ignorant, who also had never met Mulcaire or spoke to him.

The frustrating thing about the whole story and investigation is that the suspicion is everything the Guardian has alleged is true and more besides, but it's simply impossible to prove. The police investigation seems to have based purely on getting a conviction on the count of hacking the royals, despite also looking into, if not prosecuting the other allegations and suggestions that numerous others were also hacked, or at least looked into the possibility of being hacked. Goodman and Mulcaire have been the fall guys for what was almost certainly a culture of contempt for the law in the News of the World newsroom. The ends justified the means, and through the silence and paying off of all involved, it's impossible to prove beyond what we already know. Coulson looks certain to survive, and the damage done to him seems to have been only slight. Tabloid culture also seems likely to remain unchanged, as ever.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009 

News of the Screws turns out to be screwed.

At the weekend the News of the World was unequivocal. According to their leader column, the phone hacking story was almost completely baseless. There were no inquiries, no charges and no evidence. It quoted Andy Hayman, the former Metropolitan head of counter-terrorism, to suggest that the police inquiry had looked into everything alleged, and that Goodman was the only journo who had accessed voicemail messages. In an act of extreme chutzpah, it even called on the Guardian to practice what it preached when it said that "decent journalism had never been more necessary".

All eyes were then on the Commons culture committee, where first Tim Toulmin of the Press Complaints Commission, then Nick Davies, the journalist who broke the story last week and Paul Johnson, Guardian News and Media's deputy editor were to give evidence. As it turned out, Graun editor Alan Rusbridger also turned up, perhaps to underline just how seriously the paper is taking both the story and the investigations triggered by it.

Toulmin, as evidenced by a log of his evidence, hardly did the Press Complaints Commission any favours. It seems remarkably relaxed by the allegations made by the Graun, as it has been from the beginning. The very fact that the PCC, despite claiming to investigate such allegations, cannot demand that those covered by it hand over documents or interview those who have since left the newspaper industry behind, as Andy Coulson had, undermines any attempt to get to the bottom of such indiscretions.

Davies then did the equivalent of setting the session alight. Far from not having any new evidence, as the News of the World had claimed, he distributed two documents (huge PDF, nearly 50 meg) which directly named two News of the World employees who clearly did know about the phone hacking carried out by Glenn Mulcaire. It also quickly became clear why Davies and the paper had not previously released this evidence: Davies said it was both NI's statement at the weekend which had prompted them to, which he said one source had told him was "designed to deceive", and that they had wanted to protect the NotW's lower journos from being treated in the same way as Clive Goodman was. The first is a transcript, heavily redacted by the Graun, by a NotW hack of the messages intercepted from Gordon Taylor's voicemail. The email, which is seen from Mulcaire's Yahoo account, opens with "[T]his is the transcript for Neville". Davies identified this Neville as none other than Neville Thurlbeck, the senior Screws journalist also responsible for the Max Mosley "Nazi" orgy which cost the paper so dearly last year. The second is a contract, between Mulcaire and the NotW, with Mulcaire known by the name Paul Williams, which promises the private investigator £7,000 if a story can be formed around information which he provides on Gordon Taylor. The contract is signed by Greg Miskiw, the former assistant editor of the paper.

This raises significant questions for both News International and the police. Quite clearly, while Mulcaire is the link between both examples of hacking into voicemails, other journalists were involved. Why then, despite the police being well aware that Gordon Taylor had been specifically targeted and that NotW hacks other than Goodman were complicit in that hacking was Goodman the only one who was actually charged? Were charges actually considered against Thurlbeck, for example, as well as the unnamed journo who put together the transcript of Taylor's messages? Why were charges also not considered against Greg Miskiw for promising Mulcaire payment should a story be developed as a result of his breaking the law?

We also learned today, in emails released between the Home Office and John Yates, that Yates' review of the evidence in the case was nothing of the sort. All he was asked do to by the Met commissioner was to "establish the facts and consider wider issues that arose in the reporting from the Guardian". In other words, all he did was look at the conclusions reached and repeat them. He even makes clear that this was not a review.

As for the NotW itself, this makes the following three sentences from its leader at the weekend even more laughable:
So let us be clear. Neither the police, nor our own internal investigations, has found any evidence to support allegations that News of the World journalists have accessed voicemails of any individuals.

Nor instructed private investigators or other third parties to access voicemails of any individual.

Nor found that there was any systemic corporate illegality by any executive to suppress evidence to the contrary.


Finally, this brings it all back to Andy Coulson. If the assistant editor knew, and was commissioning Mulcaire to conduct such trawling expeditions, then are we really meant to believe that Coulson himself didn't know? If he truly didn't, as he and the NotW have persistently claimed, then the reason seems to be because he didn't want to know. Yet as editor of the paper he was the person ultimately responsible for what those below him got up to. Either way, he was the person in charge when those below him blatantly and deliberately breached the law in attempts to get stories which were clearly not even slightly in the public interest. David Cameron should be once again continuing his chief spin doctor's position.

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Friday, July 10, 2009 

The Graun vs News International: fight!

Battle then has finally been joined in what could turn out to be a titanic struggle between News International and the Guardian. After two days of silence and not bothering to dispute any of the Nick Davies' initial report, Rebekah Wade released a letter written to the head of the Commons Media Select Committee, John Wittingdale (PDF), and News International as a whole has released a point by point supposed refutation of the Guardian's claims.

To go from denying almost nothing to denying everything is quite a step change, and one which could yet turn out to be disastrous for News International. Wade's letter is especially laughable, and further evidence perhaps of why she has long been shielded from the public eye, something she won't be able to do once she becomes chief executive. Notably, Wade informs Wittingdale that Colin Myler, Andy Coulson's replacement as editor of the NotW and Tom Crone, the paper's longstanding legal counsel will appear before his committee, and not just to give evidence but "refute" the Guardian's allegations that voicemail hacking was endemic at the paper. The fact that Myler hadn't been working at the paper prior to his appointment as editor doesn't inspire confidence that he'll be an any better witness than Les Hinton was previously. As for Tom Crone, if his presence is meant to inspire dread in the committee, they should remember that it was he who advised Mazher Mahmood to pursue George Galloway for publishing his image on the net following his failure to entrap him, while his performance at the Max Mosley trial as the paper's counsel helped the paper to its defeat. Myler himself also gave evidence that hardly helped the paper's case.

Wade goes on to claim that the Guardian has "substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public". That is a very serious allegation to make, and one which Wade provides no evidence to back up. It's also rather hilarious, making you wonder whether News International is so peeved because that's their job. Even those of us who are severe critics of tabloid journalism as a whole, and especially Wade's work, would baulk at alleging that she has deliberately misled readers on stories such as that involving Alfie Patten. The hypocrisy and irony also keeps on coming, as Wade complains that the Guardian is "repeating allegations by such sources as unnamed Met officers". If it wasn't for unnamed police sources, the Sun wouldn't have published such brilliant exclusives as the claim that Rochelle Holness was dismembered while alive, which is unbelievably still uncorrected on their website, or that Janet Hossain was found dead wearing S&M gear, both of which were untrue and hurtful beyond belief to the relatives who were trying to come to terms with their loss.

Next, she claims that both the Guardian and television coverage of Nick Davies' initial report has "deliberately or recklessly" combined references to the Peter Taylor and Prince William voicemail hacking with the revelations in the Information Commissioner's two reports, and that there is no connection between the two. This is inaccurate on both points: most of the references made to the ICO reports have been clear, while even if there is no direct connection between the two separate cases, the work of Steve Whittamore is an example of just what the tabloids and some broadsheets have been up to, and undermines the claims made by the NotW that Clive Goodman was just one bad apple, when at least 19 separate NotW hacks made use of Whittamore.

The News International statement is rather more robust, although still full of holes and in places deliberately pulls its punches. It also seems as if the NotW itself was kept well abreast of the police investigation, and robustly claims that it's the police that confirm that the Guardian's allegations are inaccurate. Even tonight though it has began to fall apart, following further responses from the Graun. The statement claims:

Apart from matters raised in the Mulcaire and Goodman proceedings, the only other evidence connecting News of the World reporters to information gained as a result of accessing a person's voicemail emerged in April 2008, during the course of the Gordon Taylor litigation. Neither this information nor any story arising from it was ever published. Once senior executives became aware of this, immediate steps were taken to resolve Mr Taylor's complaint.

From our own investigation, but more importantly that of the police, we can state with confidence that, apart from the matters referred to above, there is not and never has been evidence to support allegations that:
  • News of the World journalists have accessed the voicemails of any individual.
  • News of the World or its journalists have instructed private investigators or other third parties to access the voicemails of any individuals.
  • There was systemic corporate illegality by News International to suppress evidence.

Yet tomorrow the Guardian reveals that one of the others that News International settled with was Jo Armstrong, a legal adviser at the PFA, who also had her voicemail hacked into. If she isn't being included along with Peter Taylor, then that's another case which the organisation has conveniently forgotten about. The statement goes on:

It goes without saying that had the police uncovered such evidence, charges would have been brought against other News of the World personnel. Not only have there been no such charges, but the police have not considered it necessary to arrest or question any other member of News of the World staff.

Considering then the NotW admits that Peter Taylor's voicemail was illegally accessed, why weren't the journalists involved in the tapping of Peter Taylor's phone considered for prosecution as Mulcaire was, when Goodman had no involvement in it? Is it because he informed them that he intended to take his own legal action and so they left it at that or otherwise? The situation remains that News International's relationship with the police is incredibly cosy. The fact also that it took far longer for NI to look through the evidence before making their statement than it did for Yates of the Yard furthers the suspicion that the police have no intention of endangering that relationship unless forced to.

Based on the above, we can state categorically in relation to the following allegations which have been made primarily by the Guardian and widely reported as fact by Sky News, BBC, ITN and others this week:
  • It is untrue that officers found evidence of News Group staff, either themselves or using private investigators, hacking into "thousands" of mobile phones.
  • It is untrue that apart from Goodman, officers found evidence that other members of News Group staff hacked into mobile phones or accessed individuals' voicemails.
  • It is untrue that there is evidence that News Group reporters, or indeed anyone, hacked into the telephone voicemails of John Prescott.
  • It is untrue that “Murdoch journalists” used private investigators to illegally hack into the mobile phone messages of numerous public figures to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data, including: tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills.
  • It is untrue that News Group reporters have hacked into telephone voicemail services of various footballers, politicians and celebrities named in reports this week.
  • It is untrue that News of the World executives knowingly sanctioned payment for illegal phone intercepts.

This is instructive as much by how it words each denial as the denial is itself. It is perhaps untrue that "thousands" of phones were hacked into; maybe it was only hundreds and the Guardian's source exaggerated slightly. It might be that there were
attempts to hack into thousands of phones, rather than that thousands were successfully compromised. It also might be untrue that journalists personally hacked into mobile phones; after all, they had Mulcaire and doubtless others paid handsomely to do that for them. What exactly was Mulcaire doing other than blagging and hacking which made him worth £2,000 a week, with extra for specific work? No hack other than star columnists and the executive staff themselves would earn such massive remuneration. Similarly, if John Prescott's voicemail wasn't hacked into, or wasn't even attempted to be hacked into, how did the Guardian know specifically which month it was said to have been done, unless their source was expert at covering his tracks? The next denial is the most remarkable of all. No one claimed that the NotW hacked into voicemail messages in order to get access to personal data; they had other private detectives who blagged their way in to do that.

All of this is potentially setting NI up for a massive fall. They must be pretty damn certain that the Met's investigation doesn't contradict their denials, and that the investigation is not going to enter the public domain, because if it does, one imagines that the Guardian will do a rerun of their Jonathan Aitken front page, except with the headline changed from "He lied and lied and lied" to "They lied and lied and lied". Instead, they must be incredibly confident that all that's going to come of this is some further legal claims by those named, in which they will only pay out again in return for silence and confidentiality.

The statement then rehashes Wade's comments about the ICO investigations:
The report concerned the activities of a private investigator who, between April 2001 and March 2003, supplied information to 32 newspapers and magazines including, incidentally, the Guardian's sister newspaper, The Observer, which according to the Information Commissioner was ninth worst "offender" out of the 32. The information supplied was deemed to be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The Guardian though made no attempt to hide the fact that the Observer had featured on Richard Thomas's list, unlike the Sun, which unsurprisingly didn't so much as mention the IC's revelations. The Times meanwhile printed part of the list, while making no mention of the fact that its parent company also owned the Sunday Times and News of the World, while snipping the list so that the Sun didn't feature on it.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the statement is left until near the end:

Since February 2007, News International has continued to work with its journalists and its industry partners to ensure that its journalists fully comply with both the relevant legislation and the rigorous requirements of the PCC’s Code of Conduct.

Since Feburary 2007. In other words, NI is making no attempt to defend Andy Coulson, who isn't so much as mentioned. If there was funny business going on, it was his fault and no one else's, and our executives are blameless. Speaking of which:

Finally, we would like to make it clear that despite the Guardian suggesting otherwise, the departure of Managing Editor Stuart Kuttner has no connection whatsoever with the events referred to above. The Guardian were informed of this position from the outset and chose to mislead the British public.

Except the Guardian did no such thing. The closest it came to alleging any connection was this article by James Robinson.

In the end, it might come down to who you're more likely to believe. Is it News International and the News of the World, which we now know repeatedly did what it previously denied it, and attempted through cosy confidentiality to deny the public and other potential victims from knowing about its payouts, or is it the Guardian, whose original report has at least partially now been fully vindicated by NI themselves? I know what my choice is.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009 

The dark arts come back to haunt Andy Coulson.

In a way, it's surprising that the "phone hacking" story has only gone nuclear now. The only real new information Nick Davies provided yesterday was that the News of the World had to pay out to three different people after their messages were intercepted, about which News International must be absolutely seething; that potentially "thousands" of celebrities and politicians had their voicemail illegally accessed; and that, perhaps in good faith, News International executives misled a parliamentary select committee, not to mention also the Press Complaints Commission and the public.

While most are only following this story back to when Clive Goodman was found, with the help of the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, to have intercepted the messages of Prince William, as well as other flunkies in the royal household, it in fact goes further back to the arrest of Stephen Whittamore, a private detective who was used by almost every national tabloid, as well as a few broadsheets, to gain information not just from cracking into mobile phones but also from national databases which he had more than a knack of blagging into. Whittamore, for reasons known only to himself, kept a complete database of every request from every newspaper and from every journalist, a database which was then seized by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and released back in December 2006, albeit sans the details concerning the journalists themselves. The News of the World wasn't even top of the list, although there were still 19 journalists making 182 separate transactions. Top was the Daily Mail, clearly Whittamore's top clients, with a staggering 58 separate hacks or employees making a total of 952 requests for information. The ICO's reports, What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now? (both PDFs) went into further details on the extent of blagging.

The most comprehensive account of Whittamore's arrest and subsequent trial was in... Flat Earth News by none other than Nick Davies. Davies dedicates an entire chapter in the book to what became known in various newspaper offices as "the dark arts". Some, it must be stated, have used "the dark arts" quite legitimately in stories which were clearly in the public interest, especially during the 90s. Equally clearly however it soon got completely out of control, and the laziest of journalists turned to these "private investigators" as their first port of call, even just to gain home addresses which were otherwise freely available. The key difference between Whittamore and Goodman and Mulcaire is that they were prosecuted under different legislation. Whittamore was tried under the Data Protection Act, having breached and blagged his way into numerous national databases, including the police's, which was his undoing, while Goodman and Mulcaire, having only been identified as gaining access to mobile phone voicemail boxes, were tried under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The then Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, had wanted the law tightened so that journalists caught using private detectives to access national databases would face a potential jail sentence; this was fought off through lobbying by Associated Newspapers, News International and the Telegraph group, which remarkably today said nothing about the Guardian's new revelations, although tomorrow it does have a follow up.

It is then ridiculous that this is the Graun out to get Andy Coulson in some sort of pact with Labour, as some Tory bloggers have claimed, especially considering just how critical the paper has been recently of Gordon Brown. Rather, this is simply good old-fashioned journalism by Nick Davies, following his investigation up to the bitter end, and having found an uncannily good source that told him about the payouts to Gordon Taylor and others. It's also remarkable that News International has not denied a single thing about the Guardian story, instead simply stating that they are bound by the confidentiality of the settling of the cases.

What does stink however, and is even more remarkable has been the Metropolitan police's amazingly fast review of the evidence, which established in double quick time that there was no need for a reinvestigation, and that John Prescott's phone, as alleged by the Graun, had not been one of those hacked into. Before passing judgement and looking into potential conspiracy theories, we should note that we're still uncertain just how far the Met's investigation into the hacking and blagging which was going on in Wapping went. Nick Davies on Newsnight made his own thinking clear on John Yates' statement, suggesting that they had narrowed it down specifically to that which Clive Goodman was involved in, or at least had so that they wouldn't have to look again. Instead, as the papers revealed during Gordon Taylor's civil action suggested, the police appear to have conducted a thorough investigation into what had been going on as a whole, and this uncovered the at least hundreds of examples, if not thousands as the Guardian has said, of phones being hacked into.

Whatever the case, that Yates has reviewed the case so quickly, not even taking a whole day to delve into what could well have hundreds if not thousands pages of evidence, suggests that the police were minded from the outset only to go after the hacking of the royals. That, it seems, was crossing an invisible line. It's worth remembering that the Metropolitan police and indeed the police as a whole have had remarkably good relations, not just with the News of the World, but also with the News International stable as a whole. There was Rebekah Wade back in 2003 inadvertently spilling the beans that her papers had previously paid the police for information, not to mention the times when the Met was more than willing to believe the line that was spun at them by Mahzer Mahmood, both in the Victoria Beckham kidnap plot that never was, and in the "red mercury" plot that equally never existed. Then there was the Forest Gate terror raid, where the News of the World was first provided with mugshots of the brothers involved and of an account which claimed one of them had in fact shot the other, rather than the police shooting one of them, which was completely untrue. Later the paper was leaked claims that a search of a computer from the home and of a mobile phone revealed child pornography, although no prosecution was forthcoming. It would be no surprise whatsoever if the Met simply decided that it was in no one's interests, and certainly not theirs, that anyone other than Goodman and his partner in crime should be the ones to cop the blame. Whether the Crown Prosecution Service will feel the same way remains to be seen, and their announcement that they would be reviewing the evidence might yet reveal them as being more willing to take on the might of News International.

To treat Andy Coulson with some fairness which he perhaps doesn't deserve, it's unfortunate that this entire mess has been raked over now. It was utterly laughable from the very beginning that he didn't know what was going on right under his nose; the simple fact that Mulcaire was being paid such vast sums of money for his work, over £100,000 a year, far in advance of what the hacks themselves would have been earning, and this in an organisation in which the ultimate authority is notoriously parsimonious about how his money is spent, makes a nonsense of the idea that he didn't know what he was doing. What should have happened back in January 2007 was a complete audit of the press by its regulatory body, a thorough investigation in which it demanded to know just how widespread such practices were, and from which specific guidelines, if not legislation, would be drawn up to stop the casual breaking of the law in search of such petty and not in the public interest information. Instead it almost seems as if there was an agreement between the PCC and the News International that as long as Andy Coulson also went, it would say nothing and everything could return to normal, as Roy Greenslade insinuates might well have happened. This was just a one-off, even if the Steve Whittamore raid proved comprehensively that it wasn't.

Indeed, if we were being fair this wouldn't be about the News of the World, Murdoch or Coulson at all. This would about a press that is getting ever more desperate as its condition weakens. Perhaps the excesses which it once resorted to, especially during the 80s, are not quite being plumbed, although the Alfie Patten case, the Sunday Express's Dunblane story and now this all certainly come close. The one thing that is now needed is confirmation that these practices, except in cases of the utmost public interest, have ceased. The PCC has shown itself to be woefully inadequate to confirm just that. Self-regulation, at least in its current toothless form, has failed. If Coulson wants to save his job, he perhaps ought to be telling his boss that those hated privacy laws might now be needed after all.

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