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What the papers won’t say

The omertà of Britain’s press and politicians on phone-hacking amounts to complicity in crime

7 July 2011

12:00 AM

7 July 2011

12:00 AM

Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that BP threw an extravagant party, with oysters and expensive champagne. Let’s imagine that Britain’s most senior politicians were there — including the Prime Minister and his chief spin doctor. And now let’s imagine that BP was the subject of two separate police investigations, that key BP executives had already been arrested, that further such arrests were likely, and that the chief executive was heavily implicated.

Let’s take this mental experiment a stage further: BP’s chief executive had refused to appear before a Commons enquiry, while MPs who sought to call the company to account were claiming to have been threatened. Meanwhile, BP was paying what looked like hush money to silence people it had wronged, thereby preventing embarrassing information entering the public domain.

And now let’s stretch probability way beyond breaking point. Imagine that the government was about to make a hugely controversial ruling on BP’s control over the domestic petroleum market. And that BP had a record of non-payment of British tax. The stench would be overwhelming. There would be outrage in the Sun and the Daily Mail — and rightly so — about Downing Street collusion with criminality. The Sunday Times would have conducted a fearless investigation, and the Times penned a pained leader. In parliament David Cameron would have been torn to shreds.

Instead, until this week there has been almost nothing, save for a lonely campaign by the Guardian. Because the company portrayed above is not BP, but News International, owner of the Times, the Sunday Times, the News of the World and the Sun, approximately one third of the domestic newspaper market. And last week, Jeremy Hunt ruled that Murdoch, who owns a 39 per cent stake in BSkyB, can
now buy it outright (save for Sky’s news channel). This consolidates the Australian-born mogul as by far the most significant media magnate in this country, wielding vast political and commercial power.

Every summer Murdoch, now 80 years old, pays one of his rare visits to London, the social highlight of which is the annual News International party. An invitation carries the same weight, say insiders, as a royal command. In the phrase of one of his executives, to turn it down is a ‘statement of intent’.

At Murdoch’s side at last month’s bash at the Orangery in Holland Park was Rebekah Brooks, close friend of the prime minister and chief executive of News International. She was also editor of the News of the World in 2002, when Milly Dowler’s phone was apparently hacked by one of the private investigators hired by the newspaper. Mrs Brooks took effective personal charge of Murdoch himself, occasionally leaving her proprietor’s side to hurtle into the throng and recruit the most powerful guests for face-time with the boss. Later she joined Murdoch, News International editors and Gabby Bertin, David Cameron press secretary, for a private dinner.

Brooks is already at the heart of one investigation into News International, concerning payments to police officers. She is also deeply implicated in the second, the voicemail hacking scandal known as Operation Weeting. This is now understood to have 70 police officers devoted to it, making it the largest investigation in the Metropolitan Police’s modern history. Yet until recently, Brooks had maintained there was no illegal hacking before 2006.

This claim — like so many other News International claims — is now falling apart. Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator imprisoned for hacking that year, is now believed to have targeted Milly Dowler’s phone. This development is seismic. It suggests police could be sitting on an as-yet-unpublished list of victims over an extra four years of Mulcaire’s phone-hacking career.

So one point is beyond debate. News International’s leading profit centre, the News of the World, was dependent on a very ugly culture of lawbreaking, hacking and impunity. This freewheeling, ask-no-questions attitude spread to other parts of the organisation, such as the Times and the Sunday Times, both of which used have used illegal or unethical techniques. Even more troubling, when senior News International management were confronted with evidence of wrongdoing, the company made false statements and took actions which prevented key evidence from reaching the public domain.

All of this raises the question: what on earth were the British prime minister and his wife doing at the Orangery on that Thursday night? There are those who maintain that David Cameron is little more than a high-grade public relations man. Cameron’s long association with the Murdoch empire, dating from his dreadful decision to hire Andy Coulson — a former editor of the News of the World who resigned after a phone-hacking scandal, and now looks to be in even deeper trouble — unfortunately suggests that the prime minister’s detractors are on to something.

When still leader of the opposition, David Cameron came across the PR fixer Matthew Freud, son-in-law of Murdoch, at Rebekah Brooks’s wedding. The two men exchanged an exuberant high-five salute. To this day, the Prime Minister and his wife remain on cheerful social terms with Brooks, who lives barely a mile up the road from the their country home. They have been known to go riding together. All this is too depressing for words.

In normal circumstances, such troubling and persistent failures of prime-ministerial judgment would be meat and drink to an opposition leader. But until this week, Ed Miliband had made the pragmatic decision to ignore the phone-hacking story — explaining privately to confidants that he had no choice because the alternative would be ‘three years of hell’ at the hands of the Murdoch press. His recent, panicked call for Brooks’s resignation only serves to highlight his silence on the scandal hitherto.

I am told that he has agreed in principle to follow in the footsteps of both Tony Blair and David Cameron and fly round the world to address an annual conference of News International executives. Perhaps he will make his theme the restoration of public decency. In recent weeks Miliband has made a series of speeches about this subject, demanding ‘a greater sense of responsibility and national mission for our country’. Doubtless it was this urgent mission which took him, alongside his shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls, to the
Murdoch party.

The truth is that Ed Miliband had made his choice very early with the appointment of Tom Baldwin, a former News International journalist, as his spin doctor. This mirrored David Cameron’s appointment of Coulson, another Murdoch high-flyer, to a similar role. For ten years, Baldwin was at the heart of a Times campaign to destroy Lord Ashcroft, the former Tory treasurer. As Ashcroft records in his book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, illegal techniques were used, though not directly by Baldwin. A private investigator was used to ‘blag’ his way into the Conservative
party bank account, while the Times paid £6,000 to a US Drugs Enforcement Agency official called Jonathan Randel for leaked information (the Times insisted the money was simply paid as a ‘research fee’). As a result Randel was sent to jail.

Perhaps Baldwin, like his former News International colleagues, doesn’t find phone hacking too shocking. Indeed, one of his first actions as Miliband’s spin-doctor was to instruct Labour MPs to go easy on the scandal. In a leaked memo, he ordered them not to link it to the impending takeover decision on BSkyB. But this was to let News International crucially off the hook. For the key question — and it burns deeper than ever in the light of the Milly Dowler revelations — is exactly whether the owner of News International is any longer a ‘fit and proper’ person to occupy such a dominant position in the British media.

This is a question that has almost never been asked. This is partly because of heavy political protection of the kind that was on such vivid display at the Orangery last month. But Murdoch could not have got away with it for so long but for the silence in the British press. The Sunday Mirror is the News of the World’s most direct competitor: one would have expected it to revel in its rival’s problems. Instead it has largely ignored the story — except for an attack on the News of the World on Wednesday — as has Express Newspapers.

The Daily Mail, likewise, has written almost nothing. Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief at Associated Newspapers, is rightly regarded as the greatest newspaper editor of his time. But in this case Fleet Street’s moralist has lost his compass: his failure to engage seriously with the phone-hacking story is a most unfortunate blot on a brilliant career. The Daily Telegraph, for which I write, has done better, but the minimum. Only the Guardian, and belatedly the Independent, have covered the story with flair and integrity.

This should have been one of the great stories of all time. It has almost everything — royalty, police corruption, Downing Street complicity, celebrities by the cartload, Fleet Street at its most evil and disgusting. One day, I guess, it will be turned into a brilliant film, and there will be a compulsive book as well.

The truth is that very few newspapers can declare themselves entirely innocent of buying illegal information from private detectives. A 2006 report by the Information Commissioner gave a snapshot into the affairs of one such ‘detective’, caught in so-called ‘Operation Motorman’. The commissioner’s report found that 305 journalists had been identified ‘as customers driving the illegal trade in confidential personal information’. It named each newspaper group, the number of offences and the number of guilty journalists (see above). But, as the commission observed, coverage of this scandal ‘even in the broadsheets, at the time of publication, was limited’. The same reticence has been seen, until now, over the voicemail-hacking scandal.

By minimising these stories, media groups are coming dangerously close to making a very significant statement: they are essentially part of the same bent system as News International and complicit in its criminality. At heart this is a story about the failure of the British system, which relies on a series of checks and balances to prevent high-level corruption. Each one of them has failed: parliament because MPs feel intimidated by the power of newspapers to expose and destroy them; and opposition, because Ed Miliband lacked the moral imagination to escape the News International mindset — until he was forced to confront it all by the sheer horror of the Milly Dowler episode.

That leaves the prime minister. He finally woke up to the kind of company he has been keeping on Tuesday when during his Afghanistan visit he declared the Milly Dowler revelations ‘truly dreadful’. David Cameron has repeatedly displayed an inability to make a distinction between right and wrong. The press ought to have stepped into the breach. Unfortunately, we in Fleet Street have forgotten that the ultimate vindication of journalism is not to intrude into, and destroy, private lives. Nor is it the dance around power, money and social status. It is the fight for
truth and decency.

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