Sunday 10 April 2011

Why we need cross-party support for a public inquiry over phone-hacking

In 2007, a News of the World journalist and a private investigator working for the paper were jailed for accessing voicemail messages between 2004 and 2006.

Since then, a number of individuals have brought breach of privacy claims against the News of the World over wrongful voicemail interception during that period, and others are threatening claims.

Evidence has recently come to light which supports some of these claims. ...
- News International statement: "News of the World says sorry", page 2, Sunday April 10th 2011.

The News International statement admitting culpability over widspread phone-hacking at the News of the World - and the failure to properly investigate it even after a reporter was sent to jail - is an extraordinary development.

Yet it is a predictable one too.

This is one more step in a long, gradual unravelling - the uncover-up, if you like -of previous concerted efforts to turn a blind eye for months and years after evidence in the public domain had long destroyed the credibility of the official storyline. Once again, the retreat is intended to "draw a line". But it probably won't work, and nor should it. The perfunctory statement continues an underlying strategy of only conceding territory that has become absolutely indefensible. So it again raises more questions than it answers. Being so far short of full disclosure, it is to be hoped that it will prove equally unlikely to bring closure to the saga either. Much more will come out about the scale

News International's belated acknowledgement of the inaccuracy of its previous public statements and the inadequacy of its previous investigations means finally facing up to how the media group's senior executives misled a House of Commons Select Committee.

But it was long obvious to anybody paying attention that they had done so. The claim that they did so unwittingly, or through omission and neglect, rather than design, has always required a defence of implausibly thorough incompetence and non-curiosity on the part of some of the sharpest and most aggressive power-brokers in the media and political firmament.

As this blog wrote over 18 months ago, back on July 9th 2009, in a post What News International told the Commons.

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.

Two years later, there has been no plausible account of this.

Or, as The Independent of Sunday editorial puts it sharply this morning:

Rupert Murdoch's retreat from the "three monkeys" defence of his newspapers' illegal eavesdropping has been long drawn out. Senior managers at News International, publishers of the News of the World, The Sun, The Sunday Times and The Times, saw no evil, heard no evil and therefore said nothing about the evils of telephone hacking. When they carried out "thorough" internal investigations, they found no evil beyond one rogue reporter. And, no, your honour, they couldn't find any emails. Not until Mr Justice Vos recently lost his patience did they say: "Oh, you mean look on the server? Goodness gracious, well, aren't these IT people clever?"

However, the most troubling questions are not for News International, but for the police (non-) investigation.

It is not so difficult to think of possible reasons as to why the media group chose not to try to find anything out with its internal inquiries. Why the Metropolitan Police appear to have had a quiet determination not to notice evidence and to ignore leads raises more troubling questions about the effectiveness and non-partiality of the rule of law in this country.

There are certainly positive features in having a non-deferential and even aggressive media culture in Britain. But none of us want to believe that Britain is a society in which some organisations are so powerful that believe that they can break the law with impunity, and appear to have good reasons to do so.

The most plausible hypothesis to explain News International's approach to the crisis to date is that the media group retained confidence that they had sufficient leverage over policemen, politicians and press watchdogs to be able to make any awkward questions go away, partly on the grounds that they command sufficient fear that those supposed to be powers in the land may well be rational to fear the professional and political consequences of getting on their wrong side

Most national media outlets has shown considerably less interest in these issues than it would have done had the allegations of illegality been made against a bank, law firm, supermarket or quango. (And just imagine if it had been the BBC!). If it had not been for the dogged reporting of The Guardian, Channel Four's Dispatches and the New York Times investigation which reignited the issue, the News International line may have held. (That NI now seeks to claim credit for "its voluntary disclosure of new evidence in January" is an audacious attempt to set new standards for chutzpah).

How much we now find out about these major public issues should not depend on whether specific individuals are willing to personally accept terms from News International. And the conditions of compensation deals should not be allowed to remove evidence about an affair touching on major constitutional and political questions from proper public scrutiny.

For a long time, these fundamental aspects of the affair risked being overshadowed by what looked mostly like party political sparring over the role of David Cameron's former communications chief Andy Coulson.

The truth is more complex. Indeed, despite crucial interventions from individual politicians, such as the persistence of Labour MP Tom Watson and the willingness of Tory select committee chair John Whittingdale to reopen the issue, it would be wise not to rely on the political parties to ensure that the truth comes out.

Labour communications chief Tom Baldwin's memo to shadow cabinet members was testimony to how each of the major parties will remain wary of tangling with a wounded beast. The departure of Coulson should have made it easier for Conservatives to treat the issues on their merits, but the desire for good relationships with the Murdoch papers and a fear that the issue could still rebound on David Cameron. Some Liberal Democrats see the importance of the issues, but are wary of being seen

So civic voices may have to take the lead, and seek to build support from all political perspectives too.

Brian Cathcart is quite right to say that a public inquiry is needed, in blogging the affair for Index on Censorship.

Cathcart notes that former Tory party chairman Norman Fowler, now a peer, has made a similar call.

If we want to get to the heart of these issues, we will need to find coalitions of voices in civic society and prepared to work across party boundaries to build support for a robust investigation into the affair and the cover-up.

Any inquiry would also need to be headed by a figure whose personal integrity is respected across the political spectrum.

May I be the first to propose one excellent candidate: the former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major.

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