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.