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Tuesday, July 12, 2011 

The decline of Murdoch and Andy Hayman's relationship with News International.

The turn in political fortunes for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation continues to frankly, amaze. Two Thursdays ago Jeremy Hunt rose in the Commons to all but rubber stamp the swallowing whole of BSkyB by News Corp; tomorrow the House will vote on a Labour motion which urges Murdoch to drop his takeover of Sky in the public interest, with all three parties due to support it. From having a seeming unshakeable grip on any politician seeking power, all of whom had to seek if not his open support then at least hope he wouldn't reject them outright to having almost no influence whatsoever is a fall of immense significance.

It's such a huge change that it's still impossible to even attempt to predict just where the crisis triggered by the phone hacking will eventually lead politics in this country. Where previously I imagined that things would soon return to something approaching normality, it's now difficult to see just how that can happen, at least for Murdoch and his papers. The latter are understandably in something approaching shock, wondering just whether they might remain under his ownership if their disposal is what it takes for the BSkyB deal to now go through.
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The response from the Sunday Times and the Sun over the allegations from Gordon Brown is the first sign that they're not going to take just anything which is thrown at them without fighting back. In his interview today with the BBC he wasn't perhaps as specific as he should have been: where he quite rightly said that there is evidence that the News of the World employed convicted criminals as private investigators, there isn't as yet the ocular proof that the Sunday Times did the same, let alone that they were the ones who specifically repeatedly targeted him. Indeed, their story on the flat he purchased looks on the surface to be the kind that was perfectly in the public interest, even if it turned out to be inaccurate. Far less clear cut is the blagging of his bank details, and other attempts at gaining access to private information.

On even more shaky ground is the Sun's reporting on his son Fraser's cystic fibrosis, despite their attempt at defending it today. Rather than being obtained through accessing his medical records, they claim that it was given to them "by a member of the public whose family has also experienced cystic fibrosis". This raises the obvious question of just how this "member of the public" managed to come by information which the Browns themselves were only just beginning to come to terms with, and also just why they decided to deliver it to the Sun. Notably, they haven't specifically denied that this person wasn't paid for the story, nor have they denied that Brown was determined to stop them having it as an exclusive, with Rebekah Wade phoning him up in an attempt to browbeat him into not issuing a spoiling statement. Regardless of how the Sun presented it, it's the kind of story which should only be published with permission from the parents, something which is clear they never directly gave (Slight update: the Sun claims Sarah Brown did give permission, see below, although whether this is the whole story or not remains to be seen).

In a way, Brown's intervention isn't especially helpful even if it's wholly justified, as it distracts attention from those who never sought any publicity or advantage through the media whose privacy was invaded in much the same way. It also gives the scandal a party political dimension which hasn't really been there so far: everyone after all was fair game to the News of the World, and Brown's time as prime minister is still far too controversial for any sympathy towards him to be universal. It's obvious that Brown, while wisely deciding not to comment on Andy Coulson directly in the interview, believes that if the true scale of the hacking scandal had been revealed at the beginning of last year rather than now that he could still be prime minister, such would have been the impact on Cameron and his team.

It also meant that the real action of the day before the home affairs select committee (not the media committee, as I first had it) was shunted into second place on the news bulletins, which meant that Andy Hayman's extraordinary evidence didn't get quite the billing it deserved. One of his first utterances was to admit that he'd had dreams of being a journalist, before he went on to admit that he'd received hospitality from News International at the same time as he'd been heading the original phone hacking investigation. The MPs for some reason found this to be shocking, although the laughter was louder after he said that not to have attended the dinner would have been even more suspicious. His subsequent employment by the Times as an occasional columnist "was a private matter" between him and the paper.

In hindsight, it's easy to be highly suspicious of the relationship between Hayman and News International while he was still assistant commissioner at the Met. Hayman was in overall charge of the notorious Forest Gate terror raid, which resulted in the shooting of one of the Koyair brothers. Having failed to find anything incriminating besides a large amount of money which was explained by the family's Islamic beliefs concerning bank accounts which paid interest, the brothers were smeared relentlessly in both the Sun and News of the World, with the latter breaking the story that child pornography had been found on one of their mobile phones, although no charges were brought. Who the source was for all these stories can only be speculated about.

Hayman certainly did have form however for briefing the press, as the investigation into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes showed. Hayman had told the Crime Reporters' Association on the day of the shooting that an innocent man had been killed, only to report to the Met's management board that

[T]here is press running that the person shot is not one of the four bombers. We need to present this that he is believed to be. This is different to confirming that he is. On the balance of probabilities, it isn’t. To have this for offer would be low risk.

When questioned by the Independent Police Complaints Commission on what he'd told the CRA and why he then decided to present the absolute opposite as being the "official" story, he said he couldn't remember what he'd said to the CRA, a failure of memory which was repeated today. When Hayman subsequently resigned from the Met in December 2007, the Sun's crime editor Mike Sullivan wrote that it was a "sad day for British policing" and that he "was one of the good guys", while the day after the release of the IPCC's report the Sun's editorial thundered that

ANDY HAYMAN’S brilliant leadership in the fight against terrorism has saved dozens of lives.

He is admired by his men just as he is feared by the terrorist scum determined to destroy our way of life.

It's doubly odd how Hayman thought it was appropriate to join the News International stable two months after he left the Met when his direct underling, Peter Clarke today outlined how he felt that the company had obstructed their investigation into phone hacking. As I've wrote this post tomorrow's Sun editorial has been posted up, for the first time commenting directly on the phone hacking through attacking Brown's accusations against the paper. It helpfully distracts from Clarke's view that if NI had offered "meaningful cooperation instead of prevarication and what we now know to be lies" then things could have been different. He later went on to state that he believed they had been "deliberately trying to thwart a criminal investigation".

This still doesn't explain why Clarke's team decided not to extend their inquiry beyond the Royal family and a few token others. No one is going to argue that the Met's anti-terrorist team had more pressing concerns than breaches of privacy during 2006, yet it stretches credulity that a thorough going through of Glenn Mulcaire's notebooks couldn't have been delegated or passed on to a different team within the force, as does his claim that some crime went uninvestigated as a direct result of his uses of resources on it at the time. As Sue Akers, the new broom brought in to helm Operation Weeting later said, having 45 officers working on the inquiry is not going to have much impact on an organisation which has 50,000 staff. Likewise, John Yates's evidence on why in 2009 he took only the best part of a day before he decided not to reopen the investigation remains as wholly lacking as it was originally.

Tomorrow we'll learn of the remit of the inquiry or inquiries to come. They obviously need to be as broad as possible, preferably with witnesses having to give evidence under oath, and investigate how the "dark arts" became so widely used across the tabloids especially towards the end of the 90s and into the 00s. The only thing that seems absolutely certain is that regardless of the fight the likes of the Sun are now beginning to put up, things only seem likely to get worse for News International. Editorials denouncing the previous inquiry by the media committee and calling their report a "dark day for parliament" now ring very hollow indeed.

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