Thursday, 9 July 2009

What News International told the Commons

There are many unanswered questions about the News International phonetap scandal. (LabourList has an extended version of my earlier post for Next Left, with new material highlighting that this is goes far beyond the position of Tory Communications Chief Andy Coulson and whether his account of why he resigned from the News of the World stands up). The most significant development so far is John Whittingdale, Conservative MP and Chair of the Culture Select Committee of the House of Commons, has urgently reopened his committee inquiry.

Paul Waugh notes that the evidence given by Les Hinton for News International to the Committee will be a key area of focus. It is already clear from what is now in the public domain about News International pay-outs that this evidence is misleading.

It would appear to be evidence from a parallel universe, which is almost entirely at odds with the facts which are now emerging.

It appears that the only defence that it was not deliberately misleading would be an extraordinary level of corporate and managerial negligence, even when conducting an internal investigation after a reporter had been jailed. This appears to depend on a scenario that around 30 staff were involved in a widespread conspiracy involving illegal activity, and all kept this from senior management who were unable to discover this.

I suspect this would happen only if there were was not much interest in discovering uncomfortable truths, so that the organisation could claim a clean bill of health having fallen prey to the illegal actions of one rogue reporter.

The alternative is that there was a cover-up at News International, which involved misleading the House of Commons as well as the broader public. It is very clear they later went to considerable efforts to keep the payouts secret as the wider pattern of activity emerged.

Whichever of these turns out to be accurate, the case against the adequacy not just of News International but of the scrutiny of the Press Complaints Commission appears a damning one indeed. What Coulson knew during his editorship remains extremely unclear. That safeguards to prevent a repeat occurring were not in place, despite the assurances made to parliament, is now alarmingly clear.

Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil notes how many different organisations have important questions to answer. While Roy Greenslade notes the narrowness of ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson's public denial.

Here are some key extracts: scroll to pages marked Ev33 to read it all.

Q90 Chairman: Les, can I come back to the Goodman case? The official version of events appears to be that Clive Goodman broke the law and has paid the penalty for doing so; that his editor was unaware that he broke the law but nevertheless took responsibility, because he was the editor, and resigned; and that is the end of it. Can you tell us what investigations you carried out to determine whether or not anybody else was aware of what Clive Goodman was doing?

Mr Hinton: First of all, the police obviously carried out pretty thorough investigations, and the result of their investigation was the charge against Clive and against the private detective. Clive went to prison; the News of the World paid a substantial amount to charities nominated by Prince Harry, Prince William and the editor, who told me he had no knowledge of this activity but felt that, since it had happened on his watch, he should take his share of the responsibility, and he resigned.

The new editor has been given a very clear remit to make certain that everything is done in the form of seminars and meetings. We were already doing this kind of thing in the past with all our newspapers. It has been re- emphasised. They are all attending. There is mandatory attendance at seminars, understanding the law and understanding the limits; understanding
that, in the event that there is a judgment that the public interest might warrant some stepping over the line, it has to be authorised by the editor at the very least. That is all being done now. I believe absolutely that Andy did not have knowledge of what was going on. However, he is no longer the editor and what matters now is that we have to start somewhere. What we are doing now is a very rigorous programme to make sure that the conduct of the journalists there is as impeccable as it reasonably can be expected to be.


Q94 Chairman: You can assure us, therefore, that in future there will be checks in place that senior reporters, however experienced, who suddenly produce stories, will be required to give undertakings that there have been no breaches of the Code?

Mr Hinton: Anything that can make the new regime more rigorous, we will do; but we are running aggressive newspapers. Their job most of the time, as I said earlier, is to find out information that other people do not want them to find out.

Q95 Chairman: You carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry, and you are absolutely convinced that Clive Goodman was the only person who knew what was going on?

Mr Hinton: Yes, we have and I believe he was the only person, but that investigation, under the new editor, continues.

Q96 Chairman: And presumably with the Press Complaints Commission?

Mr Hinton: The Press Complaints Commission have in fact been in pretty detailed communication with the new editor.

Chairman: Thank you. I think that is all we have for you.

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