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Wednesday, December 14, 2011 

Pots and kettles.

Ah, how quickly things change. Yesterday it looked as though the other papers weren't going to make much of the slight unravelling of the Milly Dowler "false hope" part of the phone hacking story, apparently feeling they had little to gain from picking on the Graun for getting the story right at the time, but wrong once the full timeline of what happened when had been re-examined. Then up popped the Sun's managing editor at the Lords' Joint Committee on Privacy Injunction, full of indignation at the apparent injustice of it all, as reported by both the Sun and the Mail.

It almost goes without saying that Richard Caseby's critique of the Graun's journalism was about as ridiculous and hypocritical as it gets. The idea that the original story was "sexed up" is facile, as the Sun's republishing of the paper's front page from the following day shows. The main headline concerns the hacking of Milly's phone by the News of the World, something which no one denies did happen. Only underneath is the false hope part; if the Graun had really wanted to sex it up it would have been part of the main headline. Moreover, Caseby's claim that the "false hope" part was only allegations rather than fact is undermined by how it seems the Dowlers were told by officers from Surrey police that the messages were likely to have been deleted by the hackers. It was what they believed at the time; subsequently it has turned out to be potentially not to be the case.

If there is one criticism to be made of Nick Davies and Amelia Hill, it's that rather than couching the "false hope" part in terms of "believed to have been deleted by" they instead presented it as undisputed. Again though, this is also what News of the World thought had happened, including Glenn Mulcaire: they didn't deny it at the time, and only later, after what seems to have been further investigation, did he start to say that he had not deleted the messages.

Further criticism could well be merited if it turns out that the only source for the "false hope" part was Mark Lewis, the man acting for many of the victims of phone hacking and also lawyer for the Dowlers. The Mail in its article squarely points the finger at Lewis, but leaves the door open for Surrey police to have been consulted also. The Met have denied knowing anything about the deletion of messages, but how far their word can be relied on is debatable. There certainly is potential for a conflict of interest if Lewis has been the principal source throughout, as many have long suspected, yet up until this week the information he's alleged to have provided has been wholly accurate. Something else that casts doubt on Lewis being a principal source is that the Dowlers had barely got over the strain of Levi Bellfield's conviction before the story was published: according to the Dowlers' witness statement to the Leveson inquiry, they had only just got back from a week's holiday when Lewis rang to inform them the story was about to break; would Lewis have used them at such a time? More likely is that the Graun got wind of the story from somewhere else, then consulted Lewis on its accuracy.

If any of the above does turn out to be true, then it obviously reflects badly on Nick Davies, not least because of his ferocious critique of modern journalistic practice in Flat Earth News. In the book he advocated checking, checking and then checking stories again, as well as being certain of your sources, all of which were being made impossible by the new time constraints being imposed on hacks. Could it be possible for instance that his story was rushed along because of the Guardian's campaign against News International swallowing BSkyB whole, something which was swiftly reversed following the Dowler revelations?

All this said, the rest of Caseby's argument was laughable. The idea that the Guardian has been leading a campaign against the Sun simply isn't stood up by the facts; yes, they wrongly accused the Sun of obtaining the medical records of Gordon Brown's son Fraser directly from the hospital where he was treated, which they apologised for, but as Private Eye has reported (1293), it seems the reality is they were handed over by the husband of a health professional there, and yes, they wrongly accused the Sun of sending round a hack to doorstep a barrister from the Leveson inquiry, but again as the latest Private Eye (1303) set out, it seems it was Marina Hyde's informing of the inquiry's press officer who then had harsh words with the Sun that stopped it from happening. Two (slight) mistakes do not a pattern make.

Likewise, it's simply fantastical to claim that it was a direct result of the Guardian's deletion reports that the News of the World was closed and 200 reporters lost their jobs. As Nick Davies has himself said, the mistake (if it turns out to be one) should not be allowed to distract attention from how the Screws for years tried to cover their reliance on phone hacking up. They could, and should have come clean when Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were jailed and Andy Coulson resigned about what had gone on. Instead they insisted on the "one rogue reporter" defence until it crumbled in the face of Davies' repeated revelations. Even when the Guardian story came out the paper could have been saved; everyone was shocked when James Murdoch shut it down. The finger should be pointing at him, as it was again today: either he failed in his duty to fully investigate the scandal when Myler and Crone brought the Gordon Taylor case before him to be settled, or he signed it off and continued to cover it up. The responsibility alone remains at the feet of News International, and always will do, regardless of how many ex-hacks there try to obfuscate the facts away.

(And Davies just wiped the floor with Jules Stenson on Newsnight in a debate that we'll be seeing for some time to come.)

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