Category Archives: notw
As the days turn to weeks many people write many words in an attempt to understand just what this press scandal is and what it means.
Is hacking just a storm in a teacup?
There are some who would like the matter to be contained, for it to be a narrowly focused question of why an individual newspaper hired an individual man to hack into the phones of celebrities, politicians and ordinary people who just happened to find themselves in the news.
There are many who hope that this is all a storm in a teacup, that of the thousands of potential victims in the Mulcaire notebooks only a handful will have suffered anything more than a theoretical intrusion into their privacy.
There are also many who fervently hope that there is nothing within these notebooks to link what is being found to other newspapers, but the opinion from people who have watched these matters closely throughout the years is that hacking and other forms of intrusion is an infection that is widespread throughout the media. It probably began when Mobile phones first began to be widely used.
Intrusion is not new. The media hunger for salacious stories has been satisfied by many different means. Hacking was simply an invisible way of doing it with no chance of being discovered elbow deep in someone’s rubbish bins.
Mobile phones and the media became the story many years ago now, with the interception of mobile phone conversations by members of the royal family. Hacking into messages is simply a natural development from that, and the fact that it was illegal does not seem to have been much of a restraint to people involved in such a potentially lucrative practice.
The problem that underlies all of this is the routine blurring of the line between what is of interest to the public, and will therefore sell a lot of newspapers, and what is in the public interest. This is one of the questions that we must hope Lord Leverson will attempt to clarify in his Inquiry.
People who found themselves too much of “interest to the public” especially the bereaved have had some defence against the excess of press intrusion when they knew it was happening, but they had no effective defence against this invisible and completely illegal theft of their feelings.
Who was part of the trade in information?
Hacking is the starting point of this scandal, but the problem is so much wider than this.
What is still to emerge is how did this industrial scale theft of phone numbers and pin numbers come about. Who encouraged it? Did they understand what was being done? How many people throughout the country are implicated in this illegal trade in personal information?
How are stories verified?
With the question of who knew about the trade I think that the starting point should be what action did the papers take to ensure themselves that the stories they were printing were true?
We heard in the Select Committee on hacking in 2009 that the news of the world employed a legal advisor, who was there in part to ensure that the paper did not leave itself open to the possibility of expensive liable suits. This was especially necessary for a paper that prided itself on exposing uncomfortable truths. My assumption is (and I may be completely wrong about this) that it would be simple good practices for any editor to a story was true, and would not harm the reputation or pockets of the paper.
The stories being captured by phone hacking had the huge advantage that they were certainly essentially true, and they were certainly exclusive.
We need to understand the verification process that operated within the papers. How do they know if a story is accurate, How do they know what sources of information were being used? Would there be people within the paper who will actually have listened to the messages?
As the suspicions of phone hacking has grown over the years more and more of the victims have challenged the News of the World about the source of the “exclusives”. They have done so with considerable success at the cost of millions in out of court settlements.
Who authorised out of court settlements?
This raises big questions. Someone in a position of some authority had to sign off these cheques, and it is reasonable to assume that they would have wanted to know why they were doing so.
The storm clouds have been gathering for a long while now. I did not really become aware of it all until 2009 but many people have been tracking this story now for years before that, and it is these people who have insistently raised the uncomfortable questions about David Cameron’s former head of communications, Andy Coulson.
Was there a cover up?
These questions are big and deeply worrying. If people knew that phone hacking had been an issue for almost a decade then why despite internal investigations, a police investigation and a review of the investigation, why despite bin bags full of evidence would no one publically recognise the scale of the problem.
Were News of the world and by extension News International hiding things from the police?
Were the police sweeping things under the carpet and if so why?
Why didn’t more politicians speak out?
A small number of politicians knew of the allegations and were demanding action, what are the different reasons why politicians from different parties were not giving them their unequivocal support in this?
Where politicians simply accepting the assurances of the police that there was not a significant problem?
Where politicians hesitant to pick a fight with News of the World and the Murdoch empire because in the shadow of the MPs expenses scandal which had indiscriminately smeared so many MPs, they understood and feared the consequences for themselves as individuals, and for their chances of electoral success?
Was it because for some MPs and politicians it actively suited them for the sun and the news of the world to have a free hand to do as they pleased?
Was it because being and remaining on the right side of Rupert Murdoch mattered?
Why didn’t the Press complaints commission deal with the concerns?
There is a regulatory body for the press, but it is a body run by editors for editors. It has insufficient powers to investigate, it takes people at their word.
David Cameron and Murdoch
There is the invidious position of David Cameron.
David Cameron is a man who places a great reliance on friends, and Rupert Murdoch is a man who lives to exert influence. We have seen through the friendships forged within the chipping Norton triangle the way in which the interests of David Cameron may have become merged with the interests of Rupert Murdoch in a way that may now be deeply harmful to both.
We have seen through accounts of the networking conducted by the Murdoch empire, how controlling access to power, the circles within the glamorous settings of the summer parties may involve many people in subtle forms of corruption.
David Cameron and Andy Coulson
The friendships at the heart of these circles we now hear brought Andy Coulson into the employment of David Cameron at the suggestion of Rebekah Brooks. This is something extraordinary. We have a highly skilled media manipulator, someone who understands exactly what sparks the public interest, and what sells papers, able to act as Murdoch’s man in number 10 and as Cameron’s man in the media.
Just think of the opportunities that this creates.
What is the impact on the way in which political communications were carried out?
We have not yet even begun to analyse the way in which the communications operation worked, at the Conservative headquarters, and later at number 10, but we know we have at the heart of it a man with the skills to package stories, a particular view of the world that is in tune with the views of the Murdoch empire, and he now has access to the Conservative party machine, a machine which would be primed to pass good stories through so that they could achieve maximum impact.
We saw the way in which Cameron in opposition used Prime Ministers questions to inflate what he described as “Daily Mail Specials” into stories with national mainstream media significance. We have seen how many of these stories were based on “individuals” in true tabloid style, and that many were also based on misleading information.
In my own town I have seen a story which encompassed both these elements used to devastating political effect. I believe when we begin to look more closely at the way in which communications was conducted in the years from 2007 that we will find much more that will concern us.
Putting public interest at the heart of the relationship with the press.
All of this raises many big questions. We have lifted the lid on a press as the plaything of powerful men, operating in the interests of the few, and contemptuous of the needs or rights of those people who become the focus of interest.
When we look we will find out much that relates to the specifics of phone hacking and the individuals at the centre of this particular story, but I believe that we will also find the failings of the press regulatory system that permits many misleading stories to be told, and does not enforce proportionate apologies.
The current PCC has at its heart the Editors code committee, made up of editors. This must change.
Reimagining the press.
The press has been, for as long as we can remember the means by which rich and powerful individuals can promote their view of the world. If this is fundamentally changed by the changes in regulation that will come, then where does this leave us?
There is a real need for a different kind of press. Something that really does address the communication of the problems that confront us all, something that brings people together to find solutions. This is completely at variance with the interests of powerful press proprietors, who actively seek to create division, to be on the winning side and to control.
If we change the ground rules, if we create a press that is in the interests of the many, will the proprietors simply close up shop, or will they adjust themselves to the needs of a changed world?
Scandals are landmarks on our political landscape. We are used to the way that the press and the media can build a furious row on a range of matters for a day or two, and then it subsides.
This scandal – which hasn’t yet even got a convincing name – is different.
It is different because it is the press itself which is now finally and inescapably at the centre of our vision. It is different because the scale of public outrage, and way in which the prime minister is so closely bound into the heart of the problem means that he has had to take far stronger action than anyone else could or would have dared, and he has had to set up a full Public Inquiry.
We can have no idea at this moment just what this Inquiry will find, what it will tell us about our society, but the expectation is that it is going to be a deeply uncomfortable process for many people. The hope is that it will show us clearly what it is that went so badly wrong in the relationship between the press, the politicians, and the people, and what steps need to be taken to put this right.
The name most commonly used for the scandal is “hackgate”. I am not sure that this is right. It captures the moment when the floodgates burst, when the universal horror over the most extreme action of a single private investigator hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone, in order to access sensational material to sell newspapers, brought home to the country as a whole that something toxic was happening to the press.
The danger of this name is that it offers comfort to far too many people. The quality press and the BBC would not dream of “hacking” though they have never been shy of parasitically reporting the stories. The other tabloids if they were doing it at all would have drawn the line somewhere. This is about unspeakable crimes, crimes that could only be committed by “other people”.
It is good that Lord Leverson sees a wider picture. He will look beyond the criminal failures in News international and the police to the wider issues of corporate governance and a media culture that allowed this extreme amoral example of bad press practice to exist. He is approaching this from the point of “who guards the guardians”.
What will we see when we do begin to look wider?
If we are looking for monsters my guess is that we will not find them.
In the tsunami of stories that have swept over us in the last 10 days there are images that float to the surface.
I see the image of Rupert Murdoch with his arm around Rebekah Brooks, offering her protection against the clamour from the mob. Is this an image of a company where things that we normally see as good, family and friendship, was allowed to matter too much, at the expense of the public and of the people who work within their organisation.
I hear the protestations of Rebekah Brooks, that she did not know, and I find this believable. I find it completely believable that there are many things that people would have chosen not to tell her, because these are things she would not have wished to hear.
I hear the accounts of journalists of the pressures they experienced within the company, the relentless pressure to deliver the right story, and I see that this pressure, something that exists well beyond the confines of the News of the World, could drive many individuals to deliver stories got by many dubious means, stories that may have a tenuous connection with the truth and stories that may be in the interests of the proprietor, but not in the broader public interest.
I see images of Rupert Murdoch, this energetic bright old man, now out from behind the curtain and exposed, and I think of the ways in which we have all, all of us allowed him to fill us with fear over the last 30 years. If there is a monster it is a monster we have built in our imaginations.
I am sure that when he does speak, he will convince us that there are things he did not know. He will not have been told, but people will have striven to deliver stories that they believed he will have wanted to see.
I saw the image of David Cameron, staying away from the House of Commons to announce another variation of the Big Society. Here the TV images played surreal tricks. The signal was corrupted. His smooth concerned face continually distorted and peeled away.
When I listen to David Cameron on the big society I hear many things that resonate. He is right that there is a limit to what the state can do, and that there is a need for us to take far greater control over our world. I see that he means this. What he does not and perhaps cannot see, what he is still hiding from himself is that this “big society” cannot have a firm foundation on the tangled mass of vested big money interests that is symbolised by his oh so close links with the Murdoch Family.
I hear David Cameron’s statements about the things he did not know, and again I find these completely believable. I think we have often seen with him the capacity to not look too closely, to block out inconvenient truths, to believe that all is well within his simple and sunny vision of the world, and we are back to the problem that people will have told him only those things that he wanted to hear.
There are people who we now know have told him strongly that there were real issues with the hiring of Andy Coulson, but for the most part he will have seen them as his political enemies, and the relationship between the parties has been so toxic, in part because of the press, that he will have chosen not to believe what he was told.
We have seen Andy Coulson, again at the centre of the story, battling his way through the crowd of cameras. As always when I see this man I do not see a monster, but a servant seeking to do the bidding of those who employed him; an intermediary between the unspoken desires of his masters and the hidden means of delivering them.
I do not see, because they are not yet visible, the other interests that lie behind all of this; those people and big business interests that supported Murdoch’s view of the world, and wanted his influence over the voting public to continue. Is Murdoch the puppet master himself a useful puppet, a servant of other masters.
I see the big set piece debates and PMQs, where we are seeing a combination of a desire to move on, clear up the intolerable mess, build a better future, with the raw and painful explosion of anger and the moment of freedom to speak out and expose some of what has been so badly wrong.
I see the committees becoming compulsive viewing. I welcome to the desire to understand what it was that happened, why problems went unchecked, and I worry about our need to put a face on what has happened and create scapegoats for all of this.
Beyond all of this we are beginning to see the jostling for position. The desire to own and claim credit for the better future.
As the tsunami recedes and we see the wreckage left behind the task is to imagine what this future looks like. We will get this right if we see the future in terms of the interests of the many, not of the few.