Almost everyone dislikes the News of the World, including many of its readers. It is coarse, intrusive, hypocritical and sanctimonious. It frequently puts itself above or outside the law – perhaps most famously when it so whipped up public hysteria over paedophilia that the mobs took to the streets, in one case mistaking a paediatrician for a paedophile and driving her out of her house. The editor of the newspaper at the time was Rebekah Wade – now editor of the Sun – who invariably refuses to talk to the press or to be interviewed even when she sets Britain ablaze. A more disagreeable example of the new media aristocracy would be difficult to find.
So all our prejudices will have been confirmed earlier this week when a judge ended a trial of five men accused of plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham. On 2 November last year the News of the World photographed the arrest of four Romanians and a Kosovan who were allegedly planning to kidnap Victoria Beckham. I wrote about the incident a week later in this column, pointing out that a careful reading of the News of the World's account strongly implied that the alleged plans to kidnap Victoria Beckham were not very far advanced. Nevertheless, the newspaper was awash with self-congratulation for its brilliant coup and, after a police investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service decided to bring charges against the alleged kidnappers.
Now it has emerged that the so-called kidnap plan was dreamt up by Florim Gashi, a 27-year-old Kosovan parking attendant, to whom the News of the World had paid £10,000. It appears that he brought a story to the newspaper's reporter, Mazher Mahmood, which did not impress the legendary sleuth. Go back and find a better one, said Mazher, and Florim did. He came up with the plan to kidnap Victoria, and produced tapes in which he and his pals are heard discussing the idea in a rather vague and lacklustre way. This was good enough for Mazher and the News of the World – and good enough for the police, who swooped on the gang under the lens of a News of the World photographer on 2 November.
The curtailing of the trial has brought forth a torrent of high-minded abuse directed at the newspaper, notably in the Independent and the Guardian. (I am particularly glad to see that in the latter my esteemed colleague, Roy Campbell-Greenslade, is now referred to as Professor Roy Campbell-Greenslade. My joy will be complete when he is Professor Sir Roy Campbell-Greenslade.) Judge Simon Smith has referred the News of the World to the Attorney-General, and the Press Complaints Commission will become involved. It certainly seems as though the News of the World has misbehaved, and that Mazher was either taken for a sucker by his friend Florim or has become inexcusably careless. Mazher, by the way, loves nothing more than dressing up as a bogus sheikh, a role which sadly could not be written into the script of this particular sting.
What interests me is that all the opprobrium of the judge and of the responsible media should have been heaped on the News of the World. For self-important as that newspaper undoubtedly is, it is not yet an official arm of the state. If I, reading the paper's original story, can see how thin the evidence is, it should not be beyond the competence of PC Plod and the Crown Prosecution Service to work it out for themselves. It was not the News of the World which decided to bring charges against the alleged kidnappers, and it was not the newspaper which clocked up hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money in a trial that had to be abandoned. And yet I do not think that I have read a word of criticism of the police or the Crown Prosecution Service in any newspaper.
Much as we may dislike the News of the World, we should be fair. It seems to have overreached itself again, though it still officially stands by its story. But whatever the newspaper's faults in this matter, they are no greater – and possibly less – than those of the police and the CPS. There are hidden agendas here. Judge Simon Smith may be one of those who is happy to jump on the anti-tabloid bandwagon that is gathering a little momentum. The Guardian has flirted with the idea of statutory controls of the press, and the Independent openly embraced them. All are entitled to their views, but they should not lash the News of the World and spare the state.
Chequebook journalism has already been circumscribed by the Press Complaints Commission, which recently introduced guidelines that ban payment or offers of payment to witnesses or potential witnesses once a suspect has been arrested. Mazher's payment to Florim might have escaped these new guidelines (had they been in force last November) since Florim was not at that precise moment a witness, though Mazher could have worked out that he would be. Perhaps the Press Complaints Commission should further tighten the screw, but this case does not strengthen the argument for statutory controls.
All newspapers have been full of reports, columns and leading articles about the missing weapons of mass destruction, and Mr Blair's possible wilful misleading of the British public. All newspapers, that is, except the Sun. Before and during the war it was only marginally outdone in its enthusiasm by Donald Rumsfeld and Fox News. The Sun never had any doubts that weapons of mass destruction existed, or that they would be found.
Yet as allegations have whizzed around during the past week, the newspaper has barely noticed them. A reader, if he did not look at other media, would not know Tony Blair was in trouble. On some days the Sun has not mentioned the controversy at all. On other days there has been the odd report, but the story has never made the front page. The paper ran a first leader about the issue on Tuesday, but it was conspicuously low-key, attacking Tony Blair's Labour critics only half-heartedly, and offering him less than complete endorsement.
What is going on? Since Mr Blair is defending his corner – asserting that weapons of mass destruction did exist and will still be found – you might expect the equally warlike Sun to do the same. Is it possible that it now entertains genuine doubts about weapons of mass destruction, and wishes to put some distance between itself and those who are categorical that they existed? If so, it is hardly going to impress its readers, all of whom will remember its passionate advocacy of war. A more likely explanation is that the paper is not prepared to die in a ditch with Tony Blair, particularly as it suspects him of engineering a sell-out in respect of the new European constitution. The Sun might not be entirely unhappy to see him shot down in flames. On the other hand, if Mr Blair gives a triumphant account of himself, and scatters his critics, we can expect the Sun to rally to his side, and declare its renewed certainty that the weapons of mass destruction were not a figment of the Prime Minister's imagination.