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.


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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Tuesday, June 16, 2009 

The exposure of NightJack and a potential disaster for blogging and journalism.

The decision by the Times to "out" NightJack, and Justice Eady's corresponding ruling that bloggers have no right to anonymity must rank as one of the most short-sighted and potentially damaging to journalism episodes in quite some time.

Quite why the Times took it upon itself to discover the true identity of the winner of this year's Orwell prize for blogging is itself a mystery. Its justifications, such as they are, that he revealed details about cases and gave tips on how to evade justice, are pitiful. NightJack had done nothing to attract attention to himself other than presumably putting himself forward for the Orwell prize, and the fact that he could write to such an ability that he pulled in readers who admired his ability to analyse both his job, the politics surrounding it and the social problems which he had to deal with. NightJack had actually stopped blogging shortly before he won the Orwell prize, and had put his sights on writing a novel, rather than bringing out a book of the best of the blog, for which he had presumably had numerous offers. He didn't even turn up to receive the prize, as someone wanting to remain anonymous would never have done, and had also undoubtedly not economically benefited from his writing.

It would be tempting to put down the reason for the Times exposing Nightjack as simple jealousy that they didn't have a writer of such calibre prepared to put pen to paper for them, yet the Times has been one of the few newspapers that have given space to reasonably well-known bloggers to write original pieces for it. Likewise, the smug neo-con Oliver Kamm was taken on by the paper and is now one of its leader writers as a direct result of his stultifying blogging and obsession with attacking Noam Chomsky. Quite rightly, others have remembered how the Sunday Times treated the Girl With a One Track Mind, the sex blogger who was outed in a fashion which would have shamed the tabloids. It isn't an exact comparison, as Zoe Margolis had just published a book of her blog and didn't write about anything as high-minded as Nightjack, preferring to detail her tedious sex life in a pseudo-intellectual style, but it seems to have been a portent of what was to come.

The main reason though for why this is such an ill wind for journalism as a whole is the implications it has for whistleblowing, which if the Times had stopped to consider for a second it would have surely noted. Eady has in effect ruled that anyone in the public services who wants to bring attention to something which they think is a cause for concern, but which by doing so they would breach "discipline regulations" has no right to protection. Arguably, Nightjack was not performing such a public service in his writing, but this surely still has a potentially chilling effect for those who do. In fact, what this ruling seems to do is ensure that those who do want to whistleblow will have to go to publications like the Times for protection; if they do it themselves through blogging then newspapers have a justification for uncovering their true identity.

Newspapers concerned with the protection of their sources will be deeply worried by this ruling. If Nightjack has no right to privacy, then just who does? According to the Times' analysis, Eady based part of his decision on the previous ruling concerning George Galloway's exposure of Mazher Mahmood, a battle which this blog was involved in. Ironically, it was then the Times' sister publication which was fighting against their top reporter having his cover blown, but the two cases are surely completely different. Mahmood was a journalist who had ruined people's lives and had arguably been involved in entrapping individuals to develop his stories. When he himself failed to entrap Galloway in a similar fashion, he reacted to the publication of two grainy, unclear photographs in a ridiculous fashion, claiming it put his life in danger, something which was treated with short shrift. Mahmood was a hypocrite; Nightjack is not, and was not exposing anyone.

Just how potentially damaging this ruling could be is illustrated by the current battle going on in Northern Ireland, where the Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen has been defending herself against attempts by the police service of the province to obtain the identity of her sources, who informed her that the Real IRA had claimed responsibility for the murder of two soldiers outside Massereene barracks in Antrim in March. Unlike Mahmood, Breen's life almost certainly would be threatened should her source be revealed, yet that hasn't stopped the police from treating her life with such apparent contempt. Less seriously, this surely also threatens journalists who write under pseudonyms, something which the Times has again also overlooked; why should they be protected when bloggers aren't?

Furthermore, isn't the current situation in Iran, where those trying to let the world know what is happen are having to resort to Twatter further evidence of how dangerous this ruling is? According to Eady, those doing so are indulging in public activity where they have no right to anonymity, the kind of idea that would delight totalitarian regimes everywhere. Similarly, newspapers would be outraged were the government to do what the Times has just done, demanding that they reveal the source for sensitive articles, claiming it would be a threat to press freedom. It turns out that all the Times and News International care about is their own self-interest, which rather undermines their repeated past criticisms of Eady and the Human Rights Act for establishing a privacy law by stealth. It seems that celebrities are protected, while everyone else is fair game. The Times may yet come to regret their supreme selfishness and lack of dedication to protecting sources bitterly.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009 

Scum-watch: Disgraceful journalism shocker.

There was a major story today which highlighted some truly reprehensible journalism by the Sun which I was intending to post on, but which has since been removed from the newspaper site on which it was posted, not I presume because it was inaccurate but because of a court order which had previously been granted that had brought the initial coverage to an end. I'm not going to repeat it because I think the story, broken in the Sun, should never have been published in the first place, but if you're so inclined you'll undoubtedly be able to find it. I do however hope that the Press Complaints Commission, which was already investigating the initial story, now throws the book at the Sun.

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Monday, February 16, 2009 

Exploitation by both sides.

Perhaps it's partially down to the Press Complaints Commission feeling the pressure after last week's Media Standards Report, which was rather intemperately responded to by both the outgoing head Christopher Meyer, and by its director, Tim Toulmin, who called it "deranged" while also claiming that the public are "pig-sick of regulation", which seems to suggest that he isn't exactly keeping up with current events, but in any event the PCC has announced that it is launching its own investigation into possible payments by both the Sun and the People to the parents of Alfie Patten, the 13-year-old at the centre of the storm concerning his apparent parentage of a child with his 15-year-old girlfriend.

The paying of the parents of a minor for material on them is explicitly forbidden by the PCC's code - except when it's decided that doing so is in the public interest. It's quite apparent that the Sun did indeed pay Patten's parents for last week's exclusive, not bothering to deny it when asked for a comment, stating that they "absolutely believe [the story] to be in the public interest". As for whether the People did, it seems unlikely that they would have been welcomed otherwise with open arms into Patten's mother's house, or that he would have been frog-marched in to answer the hack's questions, obviously incredibly uncomfortable with the situation.

Key will obviously be whether the newspapers can make a respectable argument for there being a public interest in the story, hopefully beyond the natural prurient interest. Doubtless the broken society will be invoked, the rareness of the situation, despite some columnists attempting to make out that this is happening every day of the week, and that in itself it has spawned a debate about sex education and how to prevent teenage pregnancies. Knowing the spinelessness of the PCC, I can't see any other ruling than that the public interest has indeed been served.

Sometimes though, even when such reports are arguably in the public interest, that doesn't necessarily mean they should be published. Already the story has spawned perhaps predictable claims that Patten, who looks 10 at the most rather than 13, is not the father, with two other teenagers claiming to also have slept with the child's mother. That these claims have been reported completely seriously, with those making the allegations being named, which will doubtless do plenty for their self-aggrandisement, is disturbing enough: nothing seems more inclined to break up any long-term relationship between father and mother than such rumours. Little thought has also so far gone into how those who are already struggling with getting used to the idea of being parents at such a young age will be affected by their being splashed on the front page of the biggest selling newspaper in the country, let alone how they feel about their sex lives being discussed almost pornographically. We also have no idea whatsoever on how the money which has changed hands will be used - one hopes that it will go towards the child's upbringing, but as there only seems to have been one side paid, and that indeed the money seems to have gone to both Patten's mother and his estranged father, that is also in doubt.

This blog tries not to moralise or come across as too sanctimonious, but this sad tale has all the hallmarks of only two sides profiting, that of the media, with the Sun already boasting of how their exclusive broke their previous records for online hits, and the parents, those who abjectly failed to prevent this situation from developing in the first place. Neither seems to have the interests of the children, for that is after all what they are, foremost in their minds. Patten in the photographs, holding and looking over the baby, looks absolutely bewildered, as numb and overwhelmed as you'd expect a 13-year-old looking at his first-born in the glare of the flashing lights to be. The odds on him remaining in contact with his child, let alone developing a proper relationship with either her or the mother, must be slim, especially in the full glare of the media spotlight. Those of us who are almost double his age have enough trouble with the latter on its own without even considering the prospect of additionally becoming a parent in the bargain. Exploiting such a situation for money and notoriety, as both sides appear to have done, is wrong, regardless of whether the public interest has been served or not.

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Monday, February 09, 2009 

Why does lack of trust not equal lack of sales?

One of the most ponderous and unanswered questions concerning the British media is why, when survey after survey suggests that journalists, especially of the tabloid ilk, are trusted only slightly more than estate agents, the papers that lie the most to their readers continue to be the ones that are the most successful. Last month Edelman found that just 19% trust newspapers in this country, while the latest survey, this time for the Media Standards Trust, found that national newspapers were the least trusted of six institutions and organisation. The police, supermarkets, the BBC, hospitals and banks were all more highly trusted, although they did come second, behind the banks, when asked which should be more strictly regulated.

Historically, it's true that while newspapers may have been founded with the best of intentions, their owners were far less principled. The barons, for the most part, only had making money as a side interest; their first concern was propaganda and the status that owning a newspaper brought. This only changed when the barons gave way to the grocers, and now, in the form of Richard Desmond, and arguably before him Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black, the asset-strippers. Others might add the Barclay brothers, considering their current cuts at the Telegraph, to that list. Rupert Murdoch combines both making money with propaganda, the losses on the Times more than subsidised by the other sections of his empire and by the profits made by the Sun and News of the World. Murdoch's own contempt for accuracy in contrast to money-making could not be more exemplified than by his order that the presses should keep rolling when the Sunday Times printed the Hitler diaries, despite their exposure as a hoax.

It's also true that throughout their history newspapers have been criticised both for their intrusions into privacy, their salacious content and their downright lies. Only once though has a scandal and the complete contempt for accuracy directly resulted in a huge drop in circulation, when the Sun more or less lost 200,000 sales overnight after splashing, ironically, with "THE TRUTH" on its front page. Those 200,000 sales lost in Liverpool after their coverage of the Hillsborough disaster have also never returned.

It's with that in mind that we ought to be careful in suggesting that things now are worse than they have ever been, as few can honestly live up to the excesses of Kelvin MacKenzie's reign whilst editor of the Sun. Likewise, on the political front, it's also true that campaigns now are nowhere near as distorted as they once were, when popular papers of both left and right seemed to do battle to outdo themselves in their respective smears on Conservative and Labour alike. 1992 was the last real time that such partisanship potentially had an impact on the result itself, although the Sun's own claims that it "won it" for the Tories are highly dubious. Newspapers have always exaggerated their ability to influence their readers to vote a certain way; most, after all, read a newspaper that plays to their own prejudices or at least shares their own politics.

One of the explanations for the continuing sharp fall in trust is that trust across the board is declining. The British Journalism Review's collection of polls actually showed that last year trust in red-top journalists went up from 7% to 15%, a completely inexplicable rise, while trust as a whole only went up in leading Conservative politicians and people who run large companies, also inexplicable. That survey, which distinguished between journalists on the red-tops, middle-market, and the up-market papers, found trust of 20% in the former and 43% of the former. All were behind BBC, ITV and Channel 4 journalists.

Why then, when so many don't apparently trust a word of what they're reading, do they continue for the most part, even when we take into consideration falling sales, mainly explained for reasons quite different to falling trust, to buy the likes of the Mail and the Sun? Is it because they completely ignore most of the news coverage and especially the political reporting, and only focus on the sport and the features, is it macohism, or is that they don't really care about whether the newspaper they read tells the truth or not? Some of it might well be down to most newspapers' complete refusal to be self-critical or so much as suggest that they might get it wrong, except when they're forced to: after all, both Paul Dacre and Rebekah Wade recently gave defiant speeches in which they directly attacked those critical or cynical of where the newspaper industry is going, while Dacre unleashed an assault directly on Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, even if not naming it, one of the most critical books in years on the press, with the added sting that it was written by an industry insider, even if from the Guardian, probably the most critical and cynical newspaper on the wider press.

Fundamentally, the main issue is not trust in the press, but accountability. The same press which widely has taken to assailing the BBC for every slight misdemeanour is far less accountable than the publicly-funded broadcaster, yet this never enters into the discussion when the BBC so openly self-flagellates. As today's report by the Media Standard Trust points out, the Press Complaints Commission is more or less a direct cabal of the press itself, something which on almost any other industry regulator would be completely unacceptable. Its powers when it comes to imposing sanctions on those that breach its code are little more than a joke: often corrections and apologies are featured in derisory positions in the paper, far back from where the original ran. For every complaint which goes to adjudication, hundreds of others are either completely rejected or "resolved", which often means that nothing more than a note on the PCC website is posted to suggest there was ever an issue. Reading it is another of my incredibly boring pastimes: often there are potential scandals, especially those regarding intrusion into grief, in my mind amongst the most serious of the abuses which the press routinely involves itself in, which are never so much as mentioned again. Both the Mail and Mirror recently removed articles from their sites, wrote letters of apology and made donations to charity after their intrusive coverage of the death of a Preston teenager, but no one would have known that such serious action was taken to make amends unless they too perused the PCC site regularly. Surely the most serious omission which would go some way to reassuring the public would be if, like Ofcom, the PCC could impose financial penalties or full, front page apologies in the cases of the most serious breaches of the code; this though would defeat the whole purpose of the PCC, which was never meant to be an independent regulator with teeth but to be one which could prevent the government from having to introduce either a privacy law or another quango of dubious independence, to give the veneer of there being some sort of body which could provide redress.

The Media Standards Trust report concludes that without reform of the PCC there will be an even further decline in standards and that the freedom of the press itself is likely to further suffer. As we have seen however, it takes an error on the level of the Sun's Hillsbrough coverage for there to be anything resembling a public outcry; the coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, probably the most recent example we have of a significant and extended period of libellous and indefensible journalism with its consequences being well-known, didn't have anything like a similar effect. It takes something on the scale of the Mirror publishing fake photographs of alleged mistreatment for its editor to be sacked, while Andy Coulson eventually left his position after the Clive Goodman affair. Notably, in both examples both have since gone on to greater things: Morgan becoming a celebrity in his own right while Coulson is now David Cameron's chief spin-doctor. The inference is obvious: only in banking can you both get away with more while there being a higher public desire for reform. The only difference is the rewards available.

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Friday, January 30, 2009 

Investing in quality journalism News International style.

Invest in journalism or die, said the ginger ninja Sun editor Rebekah Wade on Monday in this year's Hugh Cudlipp lecture. It was therefore inevitable that News International would do the exact opposite:

News International is poised to make a series of editorial job cuts across its tabloid and broadsheet newspapers in the next two weeks and cut the rates it pays some agencies for stories.

Production staff are likely to be heavy casualties as the Sun, News of the World, the Times and Sunday Times seek to further integrate subbing in print and online, understands.

It is believed that the cuts could affect as many as 200 staff, 10% of News International journalists. However, other sources say the number could be far lower, with fewer than 100 jobs expected to be at risk.

Sources close to the plan say that the Times could bear the brunt of the cuts, while the more profitable Sun will see more protection. ... Further savings are also expected as the publisher reduces the amount it pays some independent news agencies for stories and pictures.

Press Gazette explains what the new rates are going to be:

The new rates are: £20 for a one or two paragraph story; £35 for three to five paragraphs; £50 for six to eight paragraphs and £70 for nine paragraphs.

The rates for small, medium and large page-lead stories are £100, £110 and £135 respectively.

The day rate for commissioned work is £110 and the rate for a page lead in the showbiz section Bizarre is £600.

Napa treasurer Chris Johnson, from Mercury Press agency, said: "They are shaving £5 and £10 off rates that were set in 1993 – they are the lowest rates on Fleet Street."

The minimum rate for a picture, of up to two square inches, has been set at £70 to £75, rising to £100 for six square inches, £130 for up to 30 square inches and £168 for 30 to 56 square inches.

Johnson said: "People won't be able to supply pictures at these rates – many agencies already set a minimum fee which is higher than this."

Paying less than in 1993 does indeed seem a lot like disinvesting in journalism rather than supporting it, but then the Sun always has confused things like journalism with propaganda and quality with bullshit. In fairness to Rebekah Wade she's currently on a piss-up with Murdoch at the World Economic Forum, so isn't responsible for today's completely supreme front page splash:
That's an interview with a cunt, a story about a man walking, and a sub-Daily Sport story about a hospital being haunted. Still, you have to give them some credit: at least they're not currently being as extraordinarily contrary as the Daily Mail, which is supporting a heroin addict over a couple of gay men.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009 

A night to dismember.

Billed as her first major speech in six years, or rather appearance, as the Sun's editor, Rebekah Wade, is notoriously shy of the limelight, the invitation for her to deliver this year's Hugh Cudlipp lecture was a curious one. Although the press is too coy to mention it, the real reason why Wade has not defended her newspaper in person when controversy has surrounded it, instead sending out Grahan Dudman to do it, is for fear that she'd embarrass herself, as she did when she rather unfortunately told the truth to a parliamentary committee by saying that her paper paid the police for information. Then there was of course her arrest and night spent in the cells for whacking her then husband, Ross Kemp, after a night on the booze. Again, interestingly, most of the media connived to cover up her split from Kemp, with Private Eye reporting that Les Hinton had phoned round the papers pleading with them not to report on it. For an editor whom in her speech defends vigorously the right to print whatever the hell she likes about those supposedly in the public eye, this strikes as rather hypocritical behaviour.

There is perhaps though another reason why Wade has not ventured into the public gaze for the past few years, which quickly becomes apparent when you read the actual content of her speech: she has nothing of any great interest to say. You don't need to be an intellectual to edit an newspaper, and Wade is probably excellent at what she does, but an orator or a debater she is obviously not. Compared to Paul Dacre, who likewise is supposedly shy of the limelight, his speeches, which included the very same lecture a couple of years back, are furious and infuriating by equal measure. He might be completely wrong, and arrogant and insulting with it, but he can argue his point well enough. Wade however lacks the courage or self-belief to adequately cover the contradictions throughout, leaving gaping holes in her material.

She might well have been then as Roy Greenslade suggests, charming in person, but none of that comes across in the somewhat disjointed full text offered by both the Guardian and the Press Gazette. Starting on somewhat surer ground, she illustrates that those cutting costs without reinvesting the savings back into journalism itself are the ones that are losing the most sales. Unsurprisingly, the Mirror and the Daily Star are the ones that have lost the most sales over the past year. Even this though leaves out some other much needed explanatory detail: Wade doesn't mention that her own paper has reignited the vicious price war, with the paper selling for just 20p across London and the south-east. As has been noted time and again, because of Murdoch's other vast interests, he can afford to do so; his competitors simply can't, and attempting to compete is beyond stupid. Naturally, Richard Desmond has therefore slashed the cost of the Star to... 20p. Although December is always a quiet month for newspapers sales, the Sun fell below 3 million last month, just as it did in 2007. Across the board though all of the tabloids are declining, and falling at far faster rates than their broadsheets rivals and sisters. It indicates the inevitable: that as the internet increasingly takes over as the main source for the celeb tittle-tattle, scandal-mongering and populist wittering which they specialise in, the tabloids are facing the end of their business models. The broadsheets, by contrast, although still giving away their content, can survive thanks to their quality and reader dedication, which simply isn't there among the red-tops and middle-market.

Wade's rallying cry then, that it will be "the quality of our journalism [that] makes or breaks our industry, not the recession", is one of those statements that makes you wonder if she really knows what she's saying. Just the recent Glen Jenvey incident, when the paper splashed on a complete untrue concocted story which accused completely innocent Muslims of being extremists, shows how much it cares about accuracy. It's no surprise to learn that a new poll found that only 19% of those questioned in this country had trust in newspapers. This is a direct consequence of the tabloids' often irresponsible and downright untrue journalism, which unfairly infects opinion of other newspapers and broadcasters, yet still editors like Dacre and Wade defend their "quality" despite its effects.

Wade's second theme, campaigning journalism, offers us her insight into both the recent Baby P affair and the more notorious "naming and shaming" of paedophiles she directed while editor of the News of the World, but first she mentions the paper's continuing support for the Help for Heroes charity, including her own trip to a base in Helmand. She describes a warm welcome and how everyone was wearing the wristbands, but this jars somewhat with the far more cynical views of the newspaper on the Army Reserve Rumour Service message board in response to the paper's Military Awards, which Wade also mentions, and which readers themselves also seemed less than overwhelmed with. She takes credit for the increasing support for the army and turnout at parades, without providing any evidence whatsoever that it was the Sun "wot did it". Similarly, while she calls for more reporting of the war in Afghanistan, she doesn't mention that her paper's own coverage of it never for so much of a second doubts that it's for a good cause or that the battle is being won. Whenever the topic is discussed in the paper's leader column, it inevitably turns to the argument that fighting the Taliban makes us safer, when again there is evidence to suggest the opposite is the case. Blind loyalty is all that it has to offer, when constructive criticism is always the best policy.

Moving on to Sarah's law, what becomes clear is Wade's utter refusal to take responsibility, both for her own actions, and also for the actions of those who read her newspaper and decide to take the law into their own hands. Illuminating firstly is that it came about after she arrived unannounced on Sara Payne's doorstep; not apparently concerned about whether either she or her husband were in a fit state to be interviewed, or to set in motion what became a crusade which if implemented would most likely have the opposite effect to that which is intended, Wade immediately had her witch-hunt. Her own contempt for the truth is also apparent when she castigates the other media for its reporting of what happened on one Portsmouth estate:

Parts of the media went on the attack with a blatant disregard for the facts of the campaign or more importantly their readers’ opinions on the matter.

After we published the first list, a group of mothers from an impoverished housing estate in Portsmouth took to the streets to protest. The BBC described them as ‘an angry lynch mob’.

What the BBC did not report was that the mothers had just discovered that Victor Burnett, a paedophile with 14 convictions for raping and abusing young boys between the ages of four and nine, had been rehoused amongst them unmonitored by the authorities.

Totally unaware of his background, the residents had complained for years about Burnett’s inappropriate behaviour towards their children but their voices, until then, had remained unheard.

How else should the media have described protests such as these, as reported by the Telegraph:

The torch paper was lit by the naming of Victor Burnett, a convicted serial child abuser, in the News of the World: he was a resident of Paulsgrove and was hounded from his home by a chanting mob. Events moved out of control: the rest of Britain looked on in horror and fascination as windows were smashed, cars burned, and angelic, banner-waving five-year-olds happily chanted words that sounded ugly falling from childish mouths. "Sex case, sex case. Hang 'em, hang 'em, hang 'em." Five families were moved from the estate: the police said that none had links with sex offences.

There was no evidence that Burnett had re-offended while on Paulsgrove, but at least he was correctly identified: others had their houses burgled, windows smashed and their cars set on fire. Wade calls the "naming and shaming" her responsibility, which it was. She however hides behind the readers themselves, critical of how others disregarded "readers' opinions", as if readers' opinions are always unimpeachable or always right. As Nick Davies pointed out in Flat Earth News, one of the rules of production is giving the readers what they want, but what
you think the readers want is not always the same thing. The key is that it's cheap, while challenging orthodoxy is expensive and unpredictable.

That Wade has no interest in the ultimate consequences of her own actions could not be more illustrated by the end result of the paper's Baby P campaign. Here's how she describes it:

Campaigns provide a unique connection to the public especially when the subject matter is of a serious nature.For me, nothing can illustrate this connection better than our recent Baby P campaign.

The public outcry was deafening. And we began our fight for justice with a determination to expose the lack of accountability and responsibility for Baby P’s brutal death.

We delivered 1.5 million signatures to Downing Street and the collective power worked.

Children’s Secretary Ed Balls was forced to use emergency legislation to ensure that those responsible were held to account. We received many many thousands of letters at The Sun about our Baby P coverage.

I’d like to read you one: ‘I have never been a huge fan of The Sun, however I thank you for the coverage of Baby P. I am so grateful for the campaign. This is not a modern day witch-hunt but a petition for justice. Please, please do not relent.'

In contrast, I’d like to quote from an article in... The Guardian.

“Full of fury and repellent hysteria, but isn’t that part of the game? This is less about the creation of public emotion and more about its manipulation."

This knee-jerk tabloid kicking reaction is just dull.

But total disregard and respect for public opinion never ceases to amaze me.

They demanded accountability.

And as a result of the campaign, some, just some, of those responsible were removed from office without compensation.

Or as this Sun reader wrote: ‘The tabloid press, which the arty-farty press like to look down on so much, has shown that it prides morality over political correctness.’

Again, there's the lack of evidence that Shoesmith and others wouldn't have been suspended or sacked if the Sun hadn't ran its campaign. Some sort of action was always going to be taken. Again, Wade hides behind supposed public opinion: it's what "they" want, not what she wants or what's good for Murdoch's bank balance. It's not about directing the blame onto other people because those actually responsible for Baby P's death couldn't be named and demonised themselves because the cogs of justice are still whirring in connected cases, it's about so-called justice, or even morality. The result? A new boss has been installed in Haringey, on double what Sharon Shoesmith was earning, while the borough is now so desperate for social workers that the head of the department made an appeal across London for some to be lent him. Children less safe, those who worked on the case who were already likely distraught had their lives ruined, and now the service, what's left of it, costs more. A more ringing endorsement of a Sun justice campaign could hardly be imagined, and yet still Wade feels fit to quote a reader who invokes morality. This so-called morality was presumably what lead the comment sections on the Sun's articles to be shut down, where previously already suicidal social workers had been encouraged to kill themselves. The only more immoral paper in this country is the Daily Mail.

Filled with such chutzpah, it's little wonder that Wade then goes on to make an even more outrageous statement, this time involving press freedom:

This country is full of regulators, lawyers and politicians eager to frame and implement legislation that would constrain freedoms hard won over centuries.

We are already losing those freedoms. Privacy legislation is being created by the drip, drip of case law in the High Court without any reference to parliament.

This from the editor of an newspaper which as the Heresiarch has already pointed out, has never so much as raised its voice once against this government's incessant attacks on civil liberties. In fact, on nearly every occasion it's supported them, whether it be ID cards, detention without trial or its constant bugbear, the Human Rights Act, which it opposed while the government introduced it. She's also completely wrong: parliament passed the HRA, which now so apparently threatens the tabloids' and their dying business model by potentially restricting the scandals they can report. This is also an issue on which public opinion is not necessarily on their side: few cared about Max Mosley, or even knew who he was until the News of the World exposed him while blackmailing the women who spanked him. The HRA doesn't affect real scandal, like the already monikered "Erminegate", which is why no one other than the tabloids and their editors care, and why the Guardian was completely right to print Mosley's own views on press freedom, which she criticises, no doubt intending to be humourous, as "self-flagellation". When she talks about quality, a old man being spanked by prostitutes is the sort of story she means.

Having regaled stories about how much the Sun listens to its readers, she concludes with a few questions which can be happily answered:

We need to ask ourselves: Can we unite to fight against a privacy law that has no place in a democracy?

Obviously not, as firstly there isn't one, isn't going to be one, and even if there was, it wouldn't be supported when it would only cover sex scandals involving celebrities. Next!

Can we agree that self-regulation is the best way to deal with the occasional excesses of a free press?

No, not when the regulator is completely toothless and cannot impose financial sanctions or front page apologies on newspapers when the "excesses" are serious enough, as they often are.

Can we have a press that has the courage and commitment to listen to and fight for its readers?

Not when no thought is put into whether the consequences of that courage and commitment will actually result in a positive outcome.

Can we survive this economic climate if we keep investment in journalism at the heart of what we do?

Not if what you call journalism is whatever's on the front page of tomorrow's Sun (Jade Goody and a footballer being interviewed about a rape).

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