In Rupert Murdoch’s machine, we were just headline fodder

The Guardian, Tuesday 24 June 2014

The lesson from the hacking trial is that we need a strong regulator to defend both a free press and the public

One conviction and a whole series of acquittals. That was the big news from the Old Bailey today. It is understandable after a trial lasting eight months and a long wait – almost two weeks – since the jury began considering its verdicts. No doubt the prime minister was deeply relieved that he does not have to answer questions about his friend, neighbour and former editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks.

But the real story that has emerged is about a newspaper, and a media company, where something went badly wrong. Andy Coulson’s conviction on a charge of conspiracy to hack phones means that seven employees of News International, as it then was, have either been convicted or pleaded guilty to hacking phones. The first convictions came as long ago as 2007, when a private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, and the News of the World’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, were convicted of hacking the phones of royal aides. Those were the days of News International’s “rogue reporter” defence, which has now been comprehensively blown out of the water.

Long before today’s verdicts, Mulcaire and two former news editors at the paper, Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hack phones, along with reporters Neville Thurlbeck and Dan Evans. It is an unmissable irony that a crusading newspaper that prided itself on exposing criminals has now been shown to have been a law-breaker on an industrial scale, sacrificing its reputation – and eventually being closed down – for the sake of getting stories.

This raises tricky questions for Rupert Murdoch and News UK, the name under which the company now operates. Most big companies take corporate governance very seriously, understanding all too well the reputational damage that wrongdoing on this scale can cause; for most senior executives and directors, a scandal involving a murdered teenager, individuals caught up in the 7/7 bombings and relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan is the stuff of nightmares.

Yet we now know that nobody, no matter how grief-stricken, was regarded as too vulnerable for the attentions of the NoW, where a no-holds-barred culture of intrusion and law-breaking took root. This is what emerged at the Old Bailey, confirming victims’ suspicions that human beings had come to be regarded merely as fodder for sensational headlines. In effect, the normal standards of journalism were turned on their head, so that the paper carelessly traumatised vulnerable people instead of defending them and exposing injustice.

The jury decided that Brooks did not know anything about all of this. Perhaps it says something about the lack of checks and balances – not to say curiosity about where stories came from – in the higher echelons of the company. At the newspapers I’ve worked on, section heads and lawyers asked searching questions before publication, a practice that seems to have been brushed aside in the NoW’s quest for exclusives.

The company’s patriarchal figure, Rupert Murdoch, is known for his autocratic style but shareholders may now want to know how a criminal conspiracy could flourish for so long at the heart of one of his flagship titles. Could he really be so incurious about what was going on and where so many stories about people’s private lives – information known to a very small circle of people – was coming from?

It is three years since he appeared before a select committee of the House of Commons and talked about the “most humble day” of his life. But a great deal more has emerged since then. He closed the NoW in a moment of panic, he said at the Leveson inquiry, but quickly launched a Sunday version of the Sun as if nothing had happened. Victims of hacking questioned his contrition at the time and there are even bigger questions in 2014; if he genuinely wants to make sure nothing like this ever happens again, why is his company backing yet another fake regulator which won’t offer victims of intrusion – or the public – the redress they want?

The grandly named Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) is just the discredited Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in a new guise. We have been round this course many times, going back several decades, following a nearly identical trajectory: scandalous behaviour by sections of the press, public outrage, the announcement of an inquiry, followed by a new regulator which looks very much like the old.

The PCC, set up and run by the industry, failed to notice criminal conduct at the NoW; it was a complaints handler, not a regulator in any meaningful sense. That is why Lord Justice Leveson called for a form of self-regulation by the industry, with an independent recognition panel to make sure that this time it does what it promises. It is what Ipso and the apparently penitent Murdoch are resisting, flying in the face of the recommendations of a very thorough public inquiry.

A free press is a cornerstone of democracy. I have always believed that, and it is one of the reasons I wanted to become a journalist. After campaigning for freedom of expression around the world, I was shocked to the core when the police told me that my phone had been hacked at home by the NoW in 2004, a few weeks after my then-partner’s eldest daughter was killed in a sky-diving accident. I have interviewed many vulnerable people, including victims of the Yorkshire Ripper and women rescued from traffickers, but I have never used underhand methods. It is occasionally necessary for journalists to break the law, but only when there is an over-riding public interest. That did not apply to the vast majority of stories that the NoW obtained through phone hacking.

It is clear from opinion polls that the public supports both a free press and Leveson’s approach to regulation. I am not sure that Murdoch or the other newspaper groups that support Ipso understand this. But if we do not achieve it, I am sure of one thing: there will be more scandals and we will look back on the past three years as a missed opportunity. Somewhere along the line, sections of the industry lost their moral compass and began abusing their power. What we need now is not more hand-wringing but a commitment by the industry to give the public the free and accountable press it deserves.

 

After Coulson, now is the time for robust self-regulation on Leveson lines

The Independent, Tuesday 24 June 2014

A criminal culture at the News of the World has finally been exposed

Something remarkable has just happened at the Old Bailey. The former editor of one of this country’s biggest-selling newspapers, the News of the World, has been convicted of conspiring to hack phones. The jury decided this was no flash in the pan, no moment of madness, but something that Andy Coulson was involved in from 2000 to 2006.

Another former NoW editor, Rebekah Brooks, has been cleared of all charges against her. But even before Coulson was convicted, three senior journalists at the paper had pleaded guilty to phone hacking charges. One of the things that the trial has established beyond doubt is that there was a longstanding criminal culture at the paper as far as hacking was concerned, and it went on for years.

In the immediate aftermath of Coulson’s conviction, David Cameron is taking heat for employing the ex-editor as his press secretary when he left the paper in 2007, after the original phone hacking trial. No doubt the prime minister has been preparing his public apology, which arrived very fast, for days if not weeks.

But in the longer run, it is not just Cameron who has questions to answer about this dreadful saga. It began, don’t forget, with the Guardian‘s revelation three years ago that the NoW hacked the phone of a murdered girl, Milly Dowler, in 2002.

That was 12 years ago. It is only now, after a trial lasting eight months, that the criminal culture at the NoW has been exposed in forensic detail. Where were the checks and balances which should have prevented it happening – or at least brought it to light long before now? What does it say about corporate governance at News International, the company which owned the paper, that top executives didn’t suspect a thing? That they stuck doggedly to the ‘one rogue reporter’ defence even when it had lost all credibility?

The jury has decided that one former editor was involved in the conspiracy, while another knew nothing about it. Three years ago, Rupert Murdoch appeared before MPs and talked about the ‘most humble day’ of his life. How much worse it all looks now, and what is he going to do to about it?

Then there is the question of regulation. The Press Complaints Commission, set up and run by the industry, failed to notice criminal conduct at the NoW on an industrial scale. Its successor, IPSO, is another fake regulator which fails to comply with the reasonable proposals set out by Lord Justice Leveson after a very thorough public inquiry.

I believe passionately in a free press. I’ve been a journalist all my working life and I don’t want state regulation, even though my phone was hacked by the NoW in 2004 when it became interested in my private life.

What I want – and the public wants it as well – is a system that offers effective redress for individuals who have been abused by the press. For that, we need robust self-regulation along the lines set out in the Leveson report, not the PCC under a different name. If we don’t get it, there will be more cases of ordinary people, grieving families and victims of terrorism, whose lives will be made hell at a time of intense anxiety and grief.

At its heart, this scandal is about power. It’s about what happens when a section of the press stops exposing abuses of power and commits them itself, breaking the law and trampling on journalistic ethics. A paper which prided itself on exposing criminals has been revealed to have broken the law on a massive scale.

It should never be allowed to happen again. The press matters too much in democracies to have its reputation tarnished like this.

Joan Smith is a victim of phone hacking and Executive Director of Hacked Off

The Iraq invasion was wrong but this time we must get involved

Independent on Sunday, 15 June 2014

A keenness to denounce Tony Blair and George Bush is parochial and does nothing to help those in need

The takeover last week of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, by an al-Qa’ida splinter group began with a PR disaster. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) issued a decree, telling the city’s two million inhabitants how they would be expected to behave: drinking and smoking were banned, everyone would have to pray five times a day and women would have to stay indoors except in cases of emergency. It was all horribly reminiscent of the moment when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, and the Islamists have since tried to tell local people that life will actually continue as normal.

Mosul was one of a string of towns and cities in northern Iraq that fell to Isis, prompting alarm among the civilian population of Baghdad and a looming refugee crisis. Save the Children warned of “one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory”, describing how families fleeing Mosul had only a matter of minutes to gather their belongings. As the exodus produced huge traffic jams, a UN human rights official said he was receiving reports of “very grave human rights violations, including summary executions” in Mosul. In Syria, where Isis first came to prominence, there were reports that the jihadists crucified three young men in a town near Aleppo last weekend for co-operating with a rival opposition group.

In December, Amnesty International called on the international community to block the flow of arms to Isis, which was originally made up mainly of foreign fighters but has recently attracted local recruits. No one took much notice: it is an indicator of the way in which Western governments have averted their eyes from the growing crisis in Iraq, preferring not to think about the consequences of the 2003 invasion. It is not as though Isis failed to signal its intentions since crossing into the country from its strongholds in Syria; in the past six months, it has captured Fallujah and parts of Ramadi.

At one level, it is understandable that the political leaders who followed George Bush and Tony Blair wanted to extricate themselves from a poorly prepared and unpopular invasion. Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and David Cameron were all keen to put the Iraq War behind them, but, in doing so, they compounded the original problem. One of the reasons I opposed the invasion was the fact that I had no sense, when I talked to British politicians, that they had any understanding of the difficulties they would face when Saddam Hussein was toppled. I remember arguing that de-Baathification would take a decade or more, making the idea of a quick in-and-out a pipe dream. This point is barely addressed in Blair’s lengthy defence of the invasion, which he has published today. Last week, one of the scenarios emerging in Iraq was the possibility that Isis has formed an alliance with remnants of Saddam’s Sunni Baath party, who feel they have no representation under the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki.

Now the Obama administration has ruled out putting troops on the ground but is having to consider other military options In Iraq. The British government has also ruled out sending troops but says the UK may offer other support, which could include expertise in counterterrorism. No doubt, Cameron feels constrained by his bruising defeat in the House of Commons last summer, when MPs voted against even the possibility of air strikes on Syria to stop further chemical attacks by the Assad regime. But it sometimes feels as though the egregious mistakes of 2003 have created an almost permanent state of paralysis towards the region at Westminster.

That does not mean we have no further responsibility towards Iraq. The current mess is a consequence of the invasion; it is possible to argue that foreign forces should not have gone into the country in the way that they did, but also that they should not have left while the country remained so unstable. This is partly the fault of Maliki, who failed to negotiate terms under which the Americans would leave a small force in Iraq when they withdrew in 2011. Yet one of the striking things about Isis is how small their numbers actually are, with some reports suggesting they took the city with a single battalion of between 500 and 800 fighters.

It is undeniable that Iraq has a brutal, nepotistic, sectarian government and that Maliki isn’t up to the job. However, allowing Isis to hold a swathe of territory in Iraq would be a disaster for civilians, as well as creating another base for terrorist attacks across the region and beyond. Maliki may have been sufficiently shocked by recent developments to bring more Sunnis into his government; in any event, his shortcomings are not a good reason to stand at arm’s length and allow parts of the country to be controlled by a jihadist group so extreme that it has been disowned by the leadership of al-Qa’ida.

For around a decade, discussion about Iraq and Syria in the UK has been frustratingly parochial, amounting to little more than a variant on the perennially popular theme of “Tony Blair was wrong”. I don’t doubt that he was but it doesn’t invalidate the principle of humanitarian intervention, backed up by military advice and even force on occasions. Instead of obsessing over a former prime minister who no longer matters very much, we should be thinking about how the international community can help the Iraqi government and the half million or so refugees who have left Mosul and other towns since the beginning of last week.

Religion is no reason to let poorly-qualified people run schools

Independent on Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Trojan Horse row shows how state education has become a dog’s breakfast of different types of schools

There are few more cheering ways to start the day than the discovery that a couple of Tory Cabinet ministers are fighting like cats in a sack. It is especially piquant when one of the protagonists is Michael Gove, probably the most widely loathed Education Secretary in years. For much of last week, he was trading blows with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, about which of them is tougher on Islamic extremism. These two rivals for David Cameron’s job have kissed and made up, in public at least, but the important thing to remember is this: they are both wrong.

The row started when someone, later revealed to be Gove, spoke to The Times and appeared to suggest that the Home Office wasn’t taking a strong enough line on combating Islamism. The Home Office then took the extraordinary step of releasing a letter written by May, in which she demanded to know whether Gove’s department had been warned in 2010 about a supposed “Trojan horse” plot by Islamists to infiltrate state schools in Birmingham. Tomorrow, the education watchdog Ofsted is due to publish reports prompted by the allegations, which surfaced in an anonymous letter; the letter’s provenance is unknown and it has been dismissed in some quarters as a hoax. But reports on two of the schools in question have already been leaked. One suggests that students are not being protected from the “risks associated with extremist views”; the other that governors involve themselves inappropriately in the running of the school and staff feel intimidated by the school’s leadership. Five schools are expected to receive Ofsted’s lowest rating.

In essence, the spat between Gove and May comes down to a question about how individuals become extremists, and whether there is a linear progression from religious teaching in schools to radicalisation as young adults. But there is a bigger problem which neither minister acknowledges because they are complicit in creating it, along with virtually all their coalition colleagues. Building on the last Labour’s government’s mistakes, they have created a dog’s breakfast of a state education system where different categories of schools operate under entirely different rules. We now have half a dozen different types of schools, including community schools, foundation and trust schools, “faith” academies and free schools, all receiving public money. Some of them have to follow the national curriculum; others merely have to teach a “broad and balanced curriculum”. Some have governors appointed on secular lines, while different types of “faith” schools are allowed to appoint between a quarter and a majority of governors for religious reasons. In the case of “faith” academies and free schools, a religious test can be used in all teaching appointments, while teaching staff do not even have to be formally qualified.

Such variance strikes at the heart of a unified state system in which all children receive a broadly similar education, equipping them for the secular society which the UK has become. Instead, there is not just a mish-mash of different regimes but an open invitation to any group which wants to promote its own ideology at state expense. For the moment, the focus is on the role of Islam, but other religions are just as keen to get involved in state education. I am not a great fan of the shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, but he is right on the money when he talks about “a worrying pattern of religious interference by governors, attempted hi-jacking of appointments, syllabus restrictions and cultural conformity”.

Whatever Ofsted has to say this week, the bone-headed determination of the last Labour government and the present coalition to hand state education over to poorly qualified people, solely on the grounds of religion, has already produced one publicly funded disaster. At the Al-Madinah Muslim free school in Derby, part of the school is due to close shortly after being judged inadequate and chaotic by Ofsted. Women teachers complained about being forced to wear the hijab, while Ofsted found that “the basic systems and processes a school needs to operate well” were not in place. Outside the state sector, Ofsted has expressed concern about an Orthodox Jewish school in north London where some pupils at the boys’ primary school reported that they had been slapped by teachers, while inspectors found that the children had a “very limited” understanding of other cultures. Then there is the independent Olive Tree Muslim primary school in Luton, which has been threatened with closure after Ofsted accused it of promoting Salafi extremist beliefs.

There is a paradox here. In my lifetime, religious observance has declined dramatically in this country. Yet the number of “faith” schools has gone in the opposite direction, encouraged by mainstream politicians who appear not to understand the importance of keeping religion out of the public sphere. “Faith” is only one aspect of personal identity, and an increasingly irrelevant one in modern Britain, so why give it such a privileged role in state education? We don’t have Liberal Democrat or Arsenal supporters’ schools and I can see no justification for pouring public money into religious ones.

This is the conversation David Cameron needs to have with his warring ministers, whose dispute is currently under investigation by the Cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood. But that would require the Prime Minister to acknowledge an incoherence at the heart of government policy. Ministers want to discourage religiously inspired extremism; they also aspire to give religion an ever-bigger role in public life. They can’t do both; these problems will not go away as long as we have a fractured state education system which gives a ludicrously inflated role to religion.