Jul 082011

judge At lunchtime today, the government announced that there will be a full judge-led inquiry into the News of the World scandal and witnesses will give evidence on oath.

This tale of telephone tapping and copper bribing is huge in the UK at the moment, and seems likely to remain so for some time to come partly, or even mainly I suspect, because there is nothing the media like better than writing about themselves. Looking at the affair objectively, it is very difficult to see what makes this story quite so important.

Yes, there are people like the Dowlers, and the families of servicemen who have died on active service, who have suffered appallingly and quite unnecessarily at the hands of unscrupulous journalists, but although I have the utmost sympathy for them, what’s new about that? Most of those who have had their phones hacked are celebrities who have put themselves in harm’s way by courting publicity in the course of realising their ambitions. I find the sight of the ludicrous Lord ‘Two Jags’ Prescott huffing and and puffing and quivering and whingeing about his privacy being invaded quite revolting.

Now that the acceptance – as though we have not always known it – that our politicians, of all political parties, have been grovelling to a ruthless press baron for decades in order to gain his support is adding spice and legs to this story. The Andy Coulson connection has brought the scandal to the doors of Downing Street itself, and no doubt David Cameron’s prestige will suffer some damage as a result, but in a month or two it is not likely to merit more than a footnote.

No one has been killed. International relations have not been thrown into chaos. If the reputation of British tabloid journalists and politicians will be somewhat dented, then they were pretty battered already. Public policy, and the decisions that affect all our lives, have not been and will not be impacted in any way.

In the long term there may be, for a while, some improvement in the conduct of the press. It may even be that News International will, briefly, have rather less influence on political life here, but so long as the opportunities and the rewards for hacks and politicians remain the same, there will be those who will continue to behave disreputably, and it is most unlikely that any kind of inquiry, however rigorous,  will come up with a reliable way of preventing this.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this whole grubby affair lies in the alacrity with which a quasi-judicial investigation has been set up when politicians are seeking to protect their own interests. All those involved face being dragged before a judge and cross-examined under oath about their motivation and behaviour. There will no doubt be further casualties among the foot soldiers, but those at the top who are just far enough removed from the action will be able to posture and boast, ‘We called for an enquiry and have got to the bottom of this’.

Contrast all that is dominating the headlines at the moment with what happened in November 2009. Then, prima face evidence came to light that scientists, on both sides of the Atlantic, and with truly global influence on public policy, had been behaving over the whole of the last decade.in ways that gave grave cause for the gravest concern. Was any serious consideration given to a judge led inquiry with those involved giving evidence under oath? Oh dear me no! But then it wasn’t in the interests of politicians or the press to really find out what had been going on, was it?

10 Responses to “News of the World? I don’t think so”

  1. Peter Oborne, Chief Political Commentator at the Telegraph, has a hard-hitting article today denouncing the poisonous effect Murdoch has had on British politics. One example: Blair, after his retirement, phoned Brown to try to persuade the Labour Prime Minister to stop the Labour MP Tom Watson raising the issue of phone hacking.
    That’s what makes the story important, not the one affair of phone hacking. But such is the nature of the libel laws, (and also of public interest) that it requires clear evidence of criminal activity for the larger picture to be dealt with at length.
    In the article, Oborne reveals the intimate relationships between government ministers and News International executives, and praises “the brilliant Guardian campaigning journalist Nick Davies”.
    The British don’t realise how lucky they are to have an independent press, in which a journalist on a conservative paper can criticise a conservative government, and praise a rival, left-wing paper. (The French have been rudely awakened by the Strauss Kahn affair to the stifling conformity of their press, in which Parisian journalists defend Parisian politicians of all colours).
    The Times may be in the hands of Murdoch. the Telegraph was in the hands of the jailbird Conrad Black. Guardian editor Rusbridger is leading his paper to perdition with his absurd obsession with global warming. No-one’s perfect. As long as they’re imperfect in different ways, the press will continue to do (imperfectly) its job of informing public opinion.
    Their failure to cover Climategate and the IPCC errors has other roots, I think. No news editor can be criticised for failing to get excited about statistical manipulations of tree ring data. He needs to have the story explained by the science and environment correspondents. The stories started and ended on the environment pages because the journalists see themselves as environmentalists first and investigative journalists second – or never. On any other subject, the Russell and Oxburgh inquiries would have been laughed out of court – as happened on the blogs.
    It’s not surprising that people find the phone hacking more interesting than the CRU emails. All we can do is carry on raising the long-term big issue in our own way. However important it seems to us, it’s just another single issue campaign to the media.

  2. There’s only one “TARGET” with a Bullseye on his back in this riot and that’s Murdoch. The government, the press (national and international) and the various business interests who see a way to make a gain in all this, are going to be pileing on. In the Old West it has the sound and smell of a Mob Lynching. The difficulty of it will be in seperating the honest truth from all the hype and lies. Expect Soros, The AGW Mob, and a few thousand others to be yelling “Crucify Him!” — after all it does so much for the economy too.

  3. I agree with the sentiments here. Ironically, Labour and the BBC (are they distinguishable?) really want to get at Murdoch. Never mind that the last government was virtually run by an ex tabloid reporter whom the mass media were too frightened to challenge, that Tom Baldwin from News International is now an adviser to Ed Miliband. That just gets a mention in passing. When Blair was questioned over the cash for honours scandal, the spin – dutifully followed by the media – was that the police were being ridiculously over zealous. For being friends with Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brookes, Cameron is apparently a war criminal. Basically the medial are still dancing to the Labour spin doctors’ tune.

  4. All good points. There is a subtext to all this, which is BSkyB. Television remains a dominant medium, at least in the UK where fewer people now read newspapers or books (here’s an article from last year in Wired about this) and what the BBC, Miliband et al definitely don’t want is a British version of Fox News. Like or loathe Fox, they are an alternative to what’s on offer at the moment here – politically they are not exactly my cup of tea, but it would be interesting to see what sort of stance a British Fox News would take on climate change, energy, etc. At the moment, listening to the BBC and Channel 4 on climate can be a bit like listening to two voices singing in the same choir.

  5. “Yes, there are people like the Dowlers, and the families of servicemen who have died on active service, who have suffered appallingly and quite unnecessarily at the hands of unscrupulous journalists, but although I have the utmost sympathy for them, what’s new about that?”

    What’s new about it? How about that not only have victims phones been hacked but messages were actually deleted. I can’t believe anyone can defend the deletion. or destruction, of possible evidence in a murder enquiry. Isn’t that new.

    And if this had been done by a BBC reporter? You’d still be saying the same thing? I don’t think so.

    Yes, we’ve been wanting to get Murdoch. He’s scum. That’s why! We’ve known that for years and now everyone else knows too.

  6. tempterrain
    The News of the World story is important because people perceive it to be. By some mysterious process which escapes the pollsters and media experts, the people are taking a stand (mostly by expressing their disgust), and the political effects will be enormous, independently of the guilt or innocence of any particular journalist, policeman or politician.
    For me, the biggest shock was hearing Lord Mandelson saying that Labour should have acted, but they couldn’t, because they were afraid. Mandelson! the arch-manipulator, admitting that he was a mere puppet, that he just didn’t dare refuse all those invitations to Mediterranean yacht cruises.
    As an unrepentant Old Labourite, I’m hoping to see a revision of the history of British politics since the eighties. I don’t know what was happening in Australia pre-Murdoch, but in Britiain there was a real leftwing resurgence, a sort of slow-motion version of May 68 in Paris, which was hijacked by Murdoch and Thatcher, who in their different ways set out to satisfy working class demands for their voice to be heard. Instead of disarmament and a viable welfare state, they got page three girls and the right to buy their council houses. When Blair seduced Murdoch with his New Labour programme, the dissolution of left /right politics proved a propitious temporary terrain for all sorts of absurd politcal weeds to prosper, including, of course, the madness of trying to abolish fossil fuels in favour of windmills.

  7. Geoffchambers,

    You were going really well in your last posting. Pity you had to spoil it all with the second half of that last sentence!

  8. Geoffchambers I’ve kept out of this story as it is insignificant compared to what else is going on. The media and our Politians are obsessed with self, and they all need to been put up against the wall and figuratively shot. We face a looming financial crisis, a political crisis in the EU, and an energy crisis at home, a military cock up in Afghanistan and another in the making in Libya and not to mention the fact that our economy is not going to well. And what do we do? Parliament is recalled for a debate on a bit of phone hacking that should be dealt with by the police, that is, if we could trust them.

    I do not think for one moment the countries mood has changed. As disgusting as the hacking of Milly Dowlers phone was, it’s the relationship between the police and all news outlets and between Politicians and the news outlets that’s disgusting and always has been. All that has changed is the Guardian and its TV arm the BBC have seized the opportunity to get at Murdock and stop him bringing over Fox News over. And the bonus is they get at Cameron.

    Irrespective of your political beliefs the whole reason this country is in the mess it is in is because there is no choice politically and no choice from our media in the way it reports matters. I do think if you don’t mind me saying so that the lefts obsession with continuing to blaming things on Thatcher is rather amusing. What was the alternative? Michael Foot or Tony Benn??

    Speaking of Tony Benn, he was always very interesting to listen to. I have no doubt he was a man of great integrity. He believed passionately in democracy, and accepted the will of the people. I disagreed with his way of running matters, but agreed with what he thought was important. He was a centralist; I’m more a free marketer. He was passionately against the EU because it removed democracy and the control of Parliament. And even though the EU is today very left-wing he would still be against it.

  9. tempterrain.
    Thanks. I addressed myself directly to you, because I think we agree about most of the important things, by which I mean things which are really happening in the world.
    Pete Geany:
    You’re right of course that the economy, the euro crisis, and our habit of getting involved in absurd wars are more important for the immediate future of the country, and should be what concerns politicians – not the hacking scandal.
    But the story is important for what it reveals about how the country as been run for the past 30 years.
    You ask: What was the alternative, Foot or Benn?
    Well, in the first years of Mrs Thatcher’s first government, when she deliberately raised VAT (and therefore inflation) and sent unemployment soaring, the majority of opinion polls showed voters preferring Foot, despite the fact that the whole press, including the pro-Labour Guardian, were ridiculing him.
    I liked your comments on Benn. They remind me of the comments of a voter canvassed by a colleague when I was in the Labour Party: “I can’t stand that Tony Benn. He’s so extreme. Mind you, I agree with a lot of the things he says”.

  10. geoffchambers. I believe their is not much difference between most people in the UK in what they think is important. What most are now agreed upon is how useless our political class are. What we lack is a visionary leader that dosen’t rely on any of the party mechanismisms. Of coarse we could only get that with a free and independent thinking press. Just maybe, “are you reading this Rupert” the Sun and the Times could give up the celebrity nonsense and start some proper independent investigative reporting. How about the Times once more becoming the paper of record and not an up market tabloid. They certainly now have the oportunaty to create a turning point, just by reporting facts. The world is in such a state that they don’t have to make any of it up.

    They could start by following up on the report by the Institute of Economic Affairs on the HS2 calling it “another political vanity project – like Concorde and the Millennium Dome – being ploughed ahead with complete disregard for properly thought through commercial prospects or the mounting opposition to it.”

    Now I could of told them that and worked it out on the back of a fag packet, which is where the original proposal came from I think. We need these reports followed up with real details. This is how we will get real change and get back at the spend thrift idots in Parliment. Did you catch that Rupert?

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