Friday, September 23, 2011

Bouchercon Hiatus - Belly of the Best

This post was written in September 2010. As a former journalist, I knew exactly how widespread phone hacking was. Yet I never expected for one second that the story would unravel as it has, not least when I wrote this first post on the subject. Which is why I'm reposting it now. In the past 12 months the News of the World has closed; Rupert Murdoch humbled; Andy Coulson resigned and was then arrested in a new police investigation after an acknowledgement the previous one was flawed; the Prime Minister embarrassed; several senior police officers have resigned; and a long-reaching judicial inquiry into press behaviour launched. I never dreamt for one second all that would happen. I am delighted it has. Proof that sometimes what goes around actually does come around.

British journalism once again finds itself in the dock, thanks to an unlikely source. While every single British newspaper apart from The Guardian has proved that dog doesn't like to bite dog and avoided reporting a long-running saga over illegal phone hacking by the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, The New York Times has revived the controversy by publishing a piece in which it claims former NOTW editor Andy Coulson, now press secretary to the Prime Minister David Cameron, 'actively encouraged' his staff to tap into people's voicemail messages in the pursuit of stories.

In a nutshell, the story goes thus: in 2007 the News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator he hired were jailed for illegally intercepting the private phone messages of eight people. Among these were Princes Harry and William. The allegation was that this was only the iceberg's tip, and the practice was endemic throughout tabloid journalism, hordes of journalists were up to it, and there were many more victims whose privacy had been invaded illegally - up to 3000 is the figure I have seen quoted, a bit more than eight. However, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service didn't take the investigation further. The conclusion being that Goodman was a rogue who acted alone, without consent from his superiors, and it stopped and ended with him. The more cynical pointed out the traditional close links between the NOTW and the police. The paper has a history of exposing people and turning their files over to the cops. Perhaps someone in Scotland Yard didn't want to jeopardise that relationship? The even more cynical wondered whether the Yard weren't just terrified of Rupert Murdoch and how vituperative his media organisations can be when faced with any sort of criticism.

Andy Coulson
Count me in the latter camp. I am a former news journalist (you could claim therefore I've always written fiction...) I worked for several tabloid newspapers. The use of private detectives and accessing private information  was and is commonplace. In the few years I spent in the business, I witnessed it many times. I saw a private detective call a woman who the media wanted to track down and pose as a pharmacist to obtain her address; I visited a private detective who boasted he could obtain details of people's criminal records; and another who claimed he knew a guy who worked for British Telecom who was willing to bug the phone of anyone we wanted for a small fee. While at the latter's house, several journalists called asking for information, ex-directory numbers, credit card histories, on people they were writing stories about. Mobile phones were not so ubiquitous then as they are now, but I heard journalists bragging about how they knew someone who could access voicemail messages of the rich and famous. It was clear this would be a fruitful avenue for skullduggery  in the future. So, the idea this was a one-off is preposterous, but that was the image News International - who own the NOTW, as well the country's biggest selling daily newspaper, The Sun, and the once-respected Times - and their sister media outlets managed to convey.

The New York Times appears to have evidence that the police did not share all the evidence it had with the Crown Prosecution Service, the inference being that if it had the CPS would have reached a different conclusion and more arrests might have been made. It is also emerging that hundreds of people whose phones were hacked into were never told about it by the police. Meanwhile, while all this went on. the self-regulatory newspaper watchdog - though lapdog would be more appropriate, given some of the board who adjudicate are editors who pronounce on their own newspapers - sat on its hands and said, while it deplored the practice of phone hacking, the matter had been dealt with, and there was little else it could do.

British journalism is in an abysmal state. It protests vociferously about privacy laws, squeals about how the European Court of Human Rights is curbing press freedom, while squandering the freedom it has chasing tawdry stories to titillate readers. It hides behind the 'public interest' but seems to define that term as anything the public is interested in. It tramples over anyone who gets in its way, chews it subjects and spits them out. Getting the story is more important than getting the story right. I know countless examples of people who had been offered money in return for their story, who then spoke, only for the newspaper to find a way to wriggle out of them paying a penny once the story appeared in print. It would be hoped the good work of The Guardian and The New York Times might help blast away some of the grime which clings to the British press, and that a sleazeball such as Coulson, whose prominence and position given his track record is a travesty, might get his comeuppance, but I wouldn't hold your breath. The biggest lesson I learned from my years as a news reporter - in perhaps an echo of Leighton's fascinating and disturbing post on Monday - is that the press has the power and holds the great and the good in its thrall; it will always win.


Dan - Friday


  1. Don't forget to place some of the blame on readers. Investigative journalism is dead in the US. The last time that captured the attention of the world was when the Boston Globe ripped open the behind the curtains dealings of the Archdiocese of Boston and the slap on the wrist meted out to pedophile priests. Boston, Irish, and Catholic have been synonyms for generations. No more.

    As a member of all three groups, I believe that it will take, at minimum, our grandchildren's generation to bring the Church back to life here.

    Unless the Globe can find another massisve topic that provides the titilation that one did, there is nothing on the horizon that would make people pick up a newspaper unless it is to read the sports pages and the obituaries. The obits are called the Irish sports page; we look at it first to learn whether there is a wake or funeral we have to go to.

    As to information, people get what they deserve. Stupidity isn't inherited, it's acquired willfully.

  2. I agree Beth.

    But more pressingly, what has happened to the Red Sox? Goodness me. How can a team go from being so good to so bad in such a short space of time. It's been painful to watch as a distant Sox fan. Heaven knows what it's been like up close.