What is this story really about?
I’ve been re-reading the Guardian story about the phone-hacking at the News of the World, as reported in the New York Times extraordinary feature. Even allowing that we had a full-scale spread on the story by the Guardian earlier this year, this story has not been altogether drowned out by the Hague-Myers story or the launch of Tony Blair’s book. The BBC and ITV are both leading with the story this evening.
I am always interested in stories that just won’t die. Alistair Campbell is reported to once have said that no normal political story could last more than 11 days, but this is still festering, and it brings several important political conflicts into sharp relief.
At the basic level, this is about Andy Coulson – it would not matter if the former NotW Editor was not David Cameron’s Director of Communications, and the UK’s best paid SpAd. His being a SpAd, knitting this story with that of Christopher Myers makes editorial sense. The Guardian’s decision to pursue the story in April/May was seen as part of its partisanship prior to the election, though the paper is very much also a bastion of anti-Murdoch sentiment matched in this country only by the BBC (see the latest farrago concerning Murdoch’s HarperCollins publishing the autobiography of ‘The Stig’ from the BBC’s Top Gear and other stories passim ad nauseaum).
Compound the story then with the entry of the New York Times (which, as it notes, is in a well-financed deathmatch with Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal), and its high-browed approach to journalistic ethics and reporting. If they are right, Coulson would stand accused of illegal activity, and potentially misleading a Parliamentary committee. Several questions still stand: how widespread was this practice, and to what extent did the authorities (the PCC but more importantly Scotland Yard) investigate and take action (or not).
Apparently, rebellious Lib Dems are now putting pressure on Nick Clegg to get the PM to agree to a judicial inquiry. The Guardian names Mike Hancock MP, Roger Williams MP and Lembit Opik (whose phone was apparently hacked. Of all the fights Clegg will have on his hands at party conference, might this be an easy one on which to make concessions?
With Labour figures, including Lord Prescott and Chris Bryant MP, taking legal action to see a judicial review of the investigation by the Metropolitan Police (who stand accused by the NYT of caring about their “long-term relationship with News International”), I suspect this story could run well into next year. The particulars of Coulson’s actions are not, I don’t think, the biggest story here – people knew and hated Alistair Campbell, and yet he survived far worse allegations than this. Damien McBride lost his job for acts widely regarded as deplorable, whereas phone hacking celebs by the tabloids is unlikely to shock British readers half as much as the staff at the New York Times. What might shock them is that Scotland Yard was apparently reluctant to pursue a more comprehensive investigation at the newspaper.
As journalism (or more properly, the mass media industry) is claimed to be in its death throes, and people like Columbia University President Lee Bollinger are seeking to remind us of the importance of a Free Press to hold government to account, this story is interesting because it suggests that one arm of the media is so powerful that even an arm of the government in the form of the police (who are, for the moment, unelected) are nervous about investigating it.
It’s almost funny to think of the way in which major political leaders, from Blair to Brown to Cameron, have courted the Murdoch empire, and yet the entire tabloid industry is being accused of widespread activity that carries custodial punishment at the hands of the State. Maybe future political leaders should learn a lesson from Caligula: it is better to be feared than loved. Start prosecuting cases uncovered by Royalcelebritymobilecellphonevoicemailhacker-gate (it’s official long-form designation in the Pantheon of Political Scandals), and you might find the remaining executive editors a lot more pliable come the next election…
Mike Smithson is away