Friday, June 10, 2011
Last year I blogged about the phone hacking scandal in the UK. Since then there have been a few developments: a wave of new accusations from public figures who had their phones hacked forced the police to accept their original investigation was a farce and open a new one; the Prime Minister's press secretaryAndy Coulson, who was editor of the country's biggest selling tabloid, the News of the World (Proprietor: Rupert Murdoch) during the time of the original allegations, resigned, not because he knew anything about it, you understand, no, obviously not, but because the publicity was distracting from all the wonderful things the government was doing; and finally, in the civil courts, the News of the World, deluged by complainants, admitted it hacked people's phones, made a mealy-mouthed apology, paid some damages and crossed its fingers that the whole sorry, sordid saga would go away.
This week came an even more sinister twist. The allegations that a private detective, and a convicted blackmailer to boot, was hired by the NOTW and other national newspapers to conduct investigations on its behalf. These 'investigations' are alleged to have employed such honourable journalistic practices as buying-up corrupt policemen, hacking into personal bank accounts, hacking into personal computers to read emails, and, so it is claimed, burglary to steal documents. The subjects of these intrusions were Government ministers, senior policemen, the Governor of the Bank of England, senior intelligence officers, members of the Royal Family and the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Eat your heart out, John Le Carre.
If this was happening in say, Italy or Spain, you would expect newspapers like, say, The Times to be fulminating about the whole corrupt saga. The Times (proprietor: Rupert Murdoch) however, remains strangely silent. As does Sky News (proprietor: Rupert Murdoch) and the biggest selling daily paper The Sun (prop...you get the picture.) With any other company, amid these revelations, you would expect people to be sacked, even arrested, and for them never to be allowed near the levers of power again. Except in this case, Murdoch is poised to gain even more control of UK television, thanks to this supine Government, and the fact he and his minions are going around scaring politicians and policemen who have voiced concern about what's happening, threatening to to expose them all.
Thank God for The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph, who refuse to accept that news that a newspaper organisation was hacking the bank account of an elected Prime Minister wasn't newsworthy, unlike the Murdoch papers. No other newspaper saw fit to report it. But then they all either hired the same private eye, or one of their own. It was amusing to see Piers 'Moron' Morgan, erstwhile CNN presenter and preening self-publicist, spring to Andy Coulson's defence recently, and dismiss the phone hacking scandal as a mere bagatelle. Because who was editor of The Daily Mirror when it was alleged to have hired the same hacking, burgling private detective as the NOTW? One Piers Moron. A man, incidentally, who is very lucky not to have been the subject of a police investigation of his own for an act of financial wrongdoing.
Despite growing public anger, and the seeming daily revelations of wrongdoing, few English newspapers or TV channels are willing to report the case in detail. A public inquiry into the behaviour of the press during this period, in which all their scurrilous and illegal activities can be laid bare for all to see, should be the least we expect. However, the current Prime Minister relies on their support for his ailing Government (I wonder if he's checked whether his phone has been hacked?) and wouldn't risk making so many powerful enemies. The best we can hope for is that the police extend the scope of their new inquiry to include these new allegations.
The majority of the British press would have people believe this isn't an important story. But they have always, with a few notable exceptions, sought to keep the truth of how they operate away from the paying public. I know from experience. When I was a young agency hack in the North of England I was tasked with helping a Murdoch paper investigate the activities of a choirmaster at a renowned public school. An informant in London had said he was shock! horror! gay. No allegations he had any carnal interest in the boys in his choir or anything like that and the work we did revealed nothing untowards about him at all. He was popular and well-respected and good at his job. No story, you would think.
You would think wrong. The paper decided the fact he was gay was enough of an angle to go on and prepared the story. They wired up one of their informants and tasked him with seducing the choirmaster, which he did successfully, though all their efforts to get him to admit an interest in the boys in his charge failed. Undeterred, a reporter was dispatched from London to put the allegations to the choirmaster, the day before publication to give no time for any other newspaper to trump this groundbreaking, earth-shattering exclusive. She put the details of the story before him. He refused to comment. She offered her card in case he changed his mind and wished to say anything. Then she left. The choirmaster went back to his room and after writing 'God Forgive them' on the back of the business card, killed himself.
A few months later an inquest was held. The press was there in force. Nearly every major newspaper in the land. The coroner denounced the behaviour of the newspaper and the press in general in the most vehement terms possible. Their behaviour was an affront to natural decency, he said. They tricked and trapped ordinary people using dishonest and illegal methods. They acted out of prurience rather than public interest. They trampled all over their subjects and their lives without any thought about the effect it might have. They were sick and in need of urgent remedy. This is dynamite, I thought.
Only The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph saw fit to report the story. The others ignored it completely, even though they were there. Dog doesn't bit dog, one trembling hack told me afterwards, with a conspiratorial wink. 'It's all a game,' he was fond of saying. I heard many hacks say it during my time as a news reporter. It palpably isn't, but the whole thing is seen as a bit of a wheeze, like some sort of caper movie. It soon became clear to me it was the sort of game a bully and his minions enjoy. They stand laughing while the object of their mirth lies on the floor bleeding. Voice a complaint and you're on the deck too.
Hopefully, the events and revelations of the past year or so will have removed the scales from the eyes from those who believe our press should be allowed the freedom to act as it wishes. The freedom of the press is a right we should cherish. In the UK, it is a freedom that has been trashed and misused. Maybe now, things will change.
Don't bet on it though.
Dan - Friday