Independent on Sunday, 27 July 2014
The public has been softened up to believe any old nonsense about the Labour leader
I’ve just looked up the word “weird” in a dictionary. The meanings it offers are “strange, queer, incomprehensible”, none of which I’d apply to Ed Miliband. But here is the Sky News website, reporting Miliband’s speech (one of the most important he’s ever made) two days ago: “The Labour leader effectively conceded he was ‘weird’ – and at times appeared to encourage people to vote for David Cameron.” I was in the audience for the speech and I didn’t hear him say either of these things. But they are further examples of how the public has been softened up to believe any old nonsense about Miliband.
I’ve known him since he was first in Parliament and I don’t always agree with him; I still think he was wrong last year about military intervention in Syria. But almost nothing I read or hear about him accords with the warm, funny, intellectual human being I know. During last week’s speech he was relaxed, self-mocking, and articulate; he didn’t use the word “weird” but he did make jokes about his resemblance to Wallace and an unfortunate photo of himself eating a bacon sandwich.
Miliband admits he doesn’t always photograph well and he knows he can’t win an image contest against Cameron. He also knows, but didn’t say, that his enemies in the press delight in choosing pictures that show him in an unflattering light. Like most Labour leaders, he is operating in a hostile environment and now he’s embarked on a huge gamble, appealing to the public over the heads of political correspondents and the Westminster lobby.
It’s no surprise that some of them didn’t like it, reacting like children who’ve had their toys taken away when he demolished his image as a humourless policy wonk. They didn’t get his point about “photo-op politics” either, even though it was made in the context of a critique of the Prime Minister’s broken promises and image manipulation. According to Miliband, Cameron “hugs a husky before an election and then says ‘cut the green crap’ after it”.
It’s part of the day-to-day hypocrisy of sections of the media that they demand arresting pictures of politicians, then complain when they get them; if Miliband hadn’t been snapped with the US President last week, the story would have been “Obama snubs Labour leader”. The only way Miliband could satisfy this inability to distinguish between a “photo-op” and a “photograph” is never to appear in public again.
Miliband will have to meet an awful lot of people before the election if this tactic is to work. But he said something hugely significant on Friday, promising to fight for ordinary families against the banks, the energy companies and Rupert Murdoch. It was brave to name the media tycoon, but also smart. Most of the press hates Labour but ordinary people are outraged by the phone-hacking scandal. They may warm to a leader who refuses to be cowed by powerful editors and proprietors.
Independent on Sunday, 20 July 2014
From MH17 to Gaza, there’s no distinction between soldiers and non-combatants caught in the crossfire
One evening last week, two sets of terrible images dominated TV bulletins, news websites and social media. From eastern Ukraine, pictures emerged of wreckage and dead bodies, the latter sometimes pixelated, following the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane. At the same time, in Gaza, flares lit up the night sky as the Israeli army followed days of shelling with a ground assault.
Almost 300 passengers and crew were killed in the plane crash that day, while at least 24 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier died in Gaza.
The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza are very different but they have this in common: as in almost all modern wars, the people who suffer most are civilians. The passengers on flight MH17 had no connection with the fighting 33,000ft below their aircraft; officials in Gaza say that three-quarters of the people killed since Israeli military operations began almost two weeks ago have been non-combatants. The Israelis counter that the deaths are the fault of the terrorist group Hamas, which places rocket launchers in civilian areas, but apportioning blame does not reduce the death toll among women, children and the elderly.
Modern forms of warfare are waged relentlessly against non-combatants. Just over a century ago, the ratio of military to civilian casualties was eight to one. By the 1990s, that figure had reversed. Think of a modern conflict – Iraq, Syria, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo – and the pictures that come to mind are endless columns of refugees and the debris-strewn bodies of women and children. In Sierra Leone a few years ago, I was shocked by the number of amputees I encountered, men and women in their twenties who mutilated by coked-up teenage “rebels” during the country’s savage civil war.
Spreading fear in civilian populations is a key element of modern warfare. Two world wars have created an understandable horror of large-scale conflict, but an unintended consequence has been the widespread adoption of tactics which make no distinction between soldiers and civilians. We have grown used to the idea that civilians may be attacked by non-state actors, usually terrorist groups, on the streets of New York, London or Madrid. But similar tactics are being used by some governments, usually through proxy militias, and Russia is one of the worst offenders. The Russian president Vladimir Putin is a master of double-speak, encouraging toxic forms of nationalism which have stoked ethnic conflict in neighbouring countries, while publicly condemning violence.
No one seriously believes that Ukrainian separatist groups would have been able to seize areas in the east of the country without substantial assistance from Russia. The separatists have shot down at least 11 Ukrainian military aircraft since June, using Russian-built surface-to-air missiles. It is hard to imagine that they would deliberately target a foreign airliner, and a more likely explanation is that they mistakenly believed it was a Ukrainian military transport plane. But while the mass murder of almost 300 civilians feels like a game-changer, Putin and his allies may have made a rapid calculation that they can sow sufficient confusion to get away with it.
Putin is a shameless user of propaganda and he has cowed much of the Russian media into toeing the government’s line. Russia was placed 148th in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders; the organisation has previously highlighted an “unacceptable failure to punish all those who have murdered or attacked journalists”. The murder of the investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in Moscow on Putin’s birthday in 2006, is a case in point; last month five Chechen men were convicted of the killing, but her family believes that the person who ordered the hit is still at large. No one has ever been charged in connection with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing accountant at a Moscow law firm, who died in dreadful prison conditions in 2009 after implicating police, the judiciary and tax officials in a massive fraud.
The coverage of the MH17 crash was too much for one journalist, a correspondent at the London office of the state-owned TV station, Russia Today. Sara Firth resigned in protest, claiming that the first rule of the station’s style book is “blame Ukraine”. Many journalists already shun Russia Today as a shameless propaganda outlet but it is worth remembering that the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, lent it respectability by presenting his own show on the station. His interviewees included Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, and Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa.
In Ukraine, at the site of the plane crash, Russian-backed separatists have been doing their best to conceal evidence of what is being described as a war crime. This is surely right, but it points to an uncomfortable fact: in recent years, as governments and human-rights organisations have pushed for international tribunals to punish war crimes, the risks to civilians have increased exponentially. Indeed, according to the academic Mary Kaldor, behaviour which used to be proscribed in war, including atrocities against non-combatants, now constitutes “an essential component” of modern warfare.
There is a danger, when so many civilians are dying – the total number of dead in Gaza rose above 300 yesterday – that it starts to seem inevitable. But it is happening because of a reluctance by the international community to restore and enforce the rule of law. Corruption, inequality and the return of nationalism are breeding grounds for conflict, and the events of last week demonstrate that none of us is immune from the ghastly consequences of modern warfare. It shouldn’t take mass murder in the sky over Ukraine to persuade our leaders that they need to identify and prosecute those who commit war crimes, no matter how important they are.
Independent on Sunday, 13 July 2014
When Gordon Brown had the chance to appoint Harriet Harman as his deputy, his fine words failed to match his actions
We all believe in equality, don’t we? If you’re on the centre-left, it’s axiomatic that you enthusiastically support equal rights for women, LGBT people and members of the BME community. That’s great, as far as it goes, but I can’t help wondering sometimes whether it means any more than a careful adherence to correct forms of language. It’s not so long since I heard a former Labour MP make a tasteless private joke about domestic violence, and I was shocked by the number of men on the left, including Tony Benn, who rushed to defend Julian Assange when he faced accusations of rape and sexual assault. Sadly, this is a subject where the adage “think left, live right” all too often applies.
Take the case of Gordon Brown, who was savaged last week by Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman. These days Brown is a United Nations special envoy for global education, and he has championed the cause of girls’ education in particular. He has been a vocal supporter of the cause of the Chibok girls, abducted three months ago from their school in north-eastern Nigeria, and met Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan on a recent visit to the country. Earlier this month, during a rare intervention in the Commons, Brown called for British troops to be sent to Nigeria to help in the search for the girls. He spoke forthrightly about “the battle between the girls of the world and backward-looking extremists” and highlighted the opportunities that should be “every girl’s birthright”.
So, what did Brown actually do when he had his own opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling? Unlike the Conservatives, who can at least lay claim to Margaret Thatcher, the Labour Party has yet to produce its first woman prime minister. It hasn’t even produced a female deputy prime minister, a failure which lies entirely at Brown’s door. In 2007, when Brown succeeded Blair as Labour leader and PM, he had an open goal in front of him. Harman had just won a close contest to succeed John Prescott as deputy leader and she expected, quite reasonably, that she would be made deputy prime minister. She was not, and the role remained vacant for the whole of Brown’s premiership. I was outraged, not just for her but for the wider cause of women in public life.
It has taken seven years for Harman to say how she felt about being sidelined, and even then she did not name her former boss directly. “Imagine my surprise when having won a hard-fought election to succeed John Prescott as deputy leader of the Labour Party, I discovered that I was not to succeed him as deputy prime minister,” she said on Tuesday. She asked her audience to imagine what would have happened if the same thing had happened to a man, doubting whether he would have put up with it.
I’m sure she’s right. Despite the slogan of those old L’Oreal ads – “Because I’m worth it” – women are conditioned not to big themselves up in public. Sadly, a similar reticence does not affect many men who go into public life; the only MP in living memory to express doubts about their suitability for a job was Estelle Morris, who resigned as education secretary in 2002. Self-doubt, fear of appearing ambitious and a thin skin combine to hold many women back, not just in politics, but the stakes in Parliament are much higher.
Women don’t make up even a quarter of MPs and Harman was right to say that British politics has a long way to go before it is representative of society in terms of women, race and class. Everyone knows that the Conservatives have a problem with all these issues. What’s shocking is that the centre-left parties have so much more to do if they are to match their rhetoric with action.
Labour has been selecting candidates for next year’s general election and so far, hardly any women have been chosen in “open” selections; the party still depends on all-women shortlists to increase its share of female MPs.
To be fair to Labour, the Liberal Democrats’ record on gender is much worse, with so few female MPs on its benches that the imbalance has become a standing joke. The party also has a shameful record of failing to support women who complain about sexual misconduct; it took five years for a former Lib Dem MP, Mike Hancock, to apologise to a female constituent and acknowledge that he had made her feel “degraded” and “uncomfortable”.
I’m convinced that some men in both parties suffer from a disconnect between what they say and what they do, apparently not realising that all that stuff about equality actually applies to them. Untested assumptions about gender, race and class have a profound impact on politics, and I wish that Harman had gone public about her own exclusion back in 2007. I can see why she didn’t: loyalty to the leader is expected of women in the party, and she would have understood the likely consequences of speaking out. Sure enough, some commentators launched distasteful personal attacks last week, implying that she wasn’t up to the job – a test that would rule out many male candidates for high office if strictly applied.
The idea that Harman was any less qualified than Prescott is risible, but the sneer will have a chilling effect on other ambitious women. Politicians should remember that sometimes actions speak louder than words: Brown’s campaigning for girls’ education is welcome, but the symbolic act of appointing the UK’s first female deputy prime minister was in his gift. And he bottled it
Independent on Sunday, 6 July 2014
The trials of Andy Coulson and Rolf Harris reveal a celebrity-obsessed culture in which we are all complicit
A couple of days ago, on the hottest day of the year so far, two men set off for court in the knowledge that they were going to spend the night in prison. Andy Coulson headed for the Old Bailey while Rolf Harris Rolf Harris’s destination was Southwark Crown Court, where dozens of reporters, photographers and camera crews waited in blazing sunshine to record the latest chapter in these very public disgraces. Seldom has the criminal justice system had to deal with two such high-profile defendants on the same day, involving behaviour which is very different – criminal intrusion in one case, sexual offences in the other – but over-steps important boundaries in a civilised society.
Apart from an accident of timing, what links these two cases is power. In any society, there is always a danger that institutions or individuals will acquire too much, and the criminal justice system is a last resort when other checks and balances have failed. Harris’s power derived from his celebrity, which he ruthlessly exploited to get access to girls as young as seven. Coulson’s came with his position as editor of one of the country’s biggest-selling newspapers, the News of the World. Even though he left the paper under a cloud, his power and connections were so important that he was able to get a job as David Cameron’s director of communications and accompany him into Downing Street.
In a situation where ironies abound, two are striking. First, as the judge who sentenced Coulson pointed out, the NOTW’s fearless seekers after truth failed to subject their own conduct to even the most cursory scrutiny. Second, the paper’s hypocritical attitude to celebrity – obsessive, censorious and fawning by turns – encouraged an atmosphere in which a favoured few believed they were beyond the law. It was clear long before the phone hacking scandal broke that the NoW was going after easy targets; under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks, who has been cleared of any knowledge of hacking, it published the names and photographs of men who had been convicted of abusing children. But it did not publish a squeak about Harris, the TV presenter Stuart Hall (now in prison after being convicted of a series of sex attacks on girls as young as nine) or indeed Jimmy Savile, who counted Margaret Thatcher and the Prince of Wales among his friends. In that sense, the paper wielded the power of a playground bully, ready to retreat as soon as a bigger boy faced it down.
Both these trials provide an opportunity to think about values. The tabloid obsession with celebrity and private life has had dire outcomes, not just for victims of intrusion but for the reputation of the press. Right now it could hardly be lower, a fact reflected in Richard Bean’s mordant farce Great Britain, which opened on London’s South Bank last week. Bean’s characters, many of whom work on a popular paper ironically called The Free Press, are a caricature but close enough to reality to draw knowing laughs from the audience. What is at stake in the aftermath of the hacking scandal isn’t the freedom of the press, but the urgent necessity to restore confidence in journalism, the police and politicians.
Ordinary people don’t like the closeness between powerful editors and politicians, a relationship I have compared to that between mafia bosses and restaurant owners who pay them protection money. In the past, readers could claim they didn’t know about some of the underhand methods mass circulation papers used to get stories. Now they do, whether it’s using shady private detectives or bullying celebrities and grieving relatives into talking to them against their will. If readers go on buying papers with this knowledge, they have to ask themselves about their own role in the ethical failures of the industry. We are not merely passive consumers of the culture we live in, and it is hypocritical to consume sensational stories about famous people and then complain about celebrity culture.
What is also clear is that if vulnerable people are to be protected from the excesses of a ferocious, commercially-driven newspaper culture, there has to be a proper system of redress. We’ve never had that in this country, where repeated scandals have resulted in the press inventing new names for regulators which don’t do their job. The latest incarnation is the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which is so far from complying with the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson as to feel like powerful editors sticking up two fingers at his inquiry. Victims of intrusion are willing to accept self-regulation, but only if there is a system of independent audit to ensure that the regulator actually does its job.
On Friday evening, as I watched Great Britain from the packed stalls at the National Theatre, I couldn’t help reflecting that Coulson and two of his former colleagues were spending their first night in prison. I don’t take any pleasure in seeing journalists go to jail, but the fact that the criminal justice system has had to intervene in the affairs of a national newspaper is a signal of how bad things had become.
The phone hacking scandal has become part of our national conversation. More trials are to come, and last week’s sentences are far the end of the matter. Politicians, journalists, police and the public need to think about the connections which brought it about, and how to ensure that in future we don’t just pay lip service to the values we all profess to believe in.
Joan Smith is executive director of ‘Hacked Off’
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 July 2014
The police investigation into historic sexual abuse was labelled a witch-hunt. But now, thankfully, the message is clear: no one is above the law
It would have been unthinkable just two years ago. That lovable TV personality Rolf Harris, epitome of the amiable Aussie entertainer, exposed as a serial sex offender? Yet that has just happened at Southwark crown court, where Harris has been convicted on 12 counts of sexual assault. During his trial, the 84-year-old was described by the prosecutor as a “sinister pervert” who targeted his own daughter’s best friend. Harris will now join two other public figures, the TV presenter Stuart Hall and the publicist Max Clifford, in prison.
The Clifford and Harris verdicts are a vindication of Operation Yewtree, the Metropolitan police inquiry launched in October 2012 when the crimes of Jimmy Savile came to light. The trials and convictions of Hall, 84, were not part of Yewtree although one of his victims decided to contact a journalist after she read about Savile’s attacks on girls. Only last week, a damning series of reports revealed the extent of Savile’s predation on vulnerable people in hospitals.
Savile’s criminal career emerged in an ITV documentary in 2012, just under a year after his death at the age of 84. He never had to face his accusers in court but the scale of his abuse – the final Yewtree report on Savile identified 450 victims – has had a seismic effect on the way victims, senior police officers and prosecutors think about sexual violence. Across the country, rape crisis centres and refuges report big increases in the number of calls from women and girls who have experienced sexual assault or rape. And while the rape conviction rate dropped last year after showing a steady increase for five years, it is striking that senior police officers and prosecutors are now prepared to go after men like Clifford, 71, who previously considered themselves untouchable.
Senior officers talk privately about the impact of interviewing hundreds of Savile’s victims, which has challenged many of their pre-existing ideas about sexual violence. Hundreds of women (and some men) who didn’t know each other told remarkably similar stories of abuse by the TV presenter, exposing the way in which a confident criminal was able to operate virtually in plain sight. They came forward not to see their abuser in court, given that Savile was dead, but because they wanted to tell their stories and be believed. Senior officers say these are lessons they have taken to heart, pointing to a 19% rise in rape prosecutions in London last year.
Operation Yewtree is still carrying out inquiries. To date, 17 people have been arrested in all; five have been charged; several are on police bail; and the rest will face no further action. Another former Radio 1 DJ, Dave Lee Travis, 68, was cleared of 12 charges of indecent assault in February, while the jury was unable to agree on two more; he has since been charged with another count of indecent assault and faces a second trial later this year.
These developments have not been universally popular. When Yewtree was set up, there was an immediate attempt to characterise it as a witch-hunt of elderly celebrities. First out of the traps was Clifford, who claimed he was getting anxious phone calls from men who feared their reputations would be damaged merely because they knew Savile in the 1960s. Clifford insisted that the entertainers in question were innocent but he then indulged in a classic piece of victim-blaming, talking about teenage girls bursting into stars’ dressing rooms. “It was the girls who were coming on to them,” he insisted.
The witch-hunt accusation was also levelled at Yewtree by the film-maker Terry Gilliam, the TV presenter Chris Tarrant (who have never been suspects) and the comedian Freddie Starr. Starr, 71, who was arrested four times in relation to historical allegations before being told he would face no further action, raged against police and prosecutors and vowed to bring Operation Yewtree “down on its knees”.
Although not directly connected, the Yewtree arrests have been linked in the public mind with the trials of two Coronation Street stars, Michael Le Vell and William Roache, who were both cleared of sexual offences. For a time, it looked as if public opinion, initially outraged by the Savile revelations, was swinging in the opposite direction.
Prosecuting offences which are alleged to have taken place 30 or 40 years ago is not easy. These are cases where there is no physical evidence, while memories of dates and times are bound to be imperfect in some instances. The risks associated with charging men such as Clifford were always apparent, even if his hubris – mocking a TV journalist who was reporting on the case outside the court – worked against him. So did the fact that the prosecution in each case was able to show a pattern of behaviour, turning the defendants’ modus operandi against them.
When Clifford was sent to prison for eight years, the judge said he had groomed and degraded his victims, aged 15 to 19; he observed that some of the offences were so serious that they would be charged as rape if they happened today. Harris’s victims were even younger, with two counts relating to girls aged 14 and either seven or eight at the time they were assaulted. The Clifford verdict sent shockwaves through the ranks of his famous clients, not to mention the tabloid journalists who had used him as a source of celebrity gossip for many years. Harris’s conviction is just as startling, but it is also a reminder that Yewtree is not just a fishing expedition. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has warned perpetrators that they should not consider themselves beyond the reach of the criminal justice system: “Nobody is immune, nobody is above the law and it doesn’t matter when things happened, we will prosecute when we have the evidence to do so.”
The Harris conviction is undeniably a blow against impunity for sex offenders, no matter how famous or elderly they happen to be. But the furore over Operation Yewtree suggests that the criminal justice system may be ahead of public opinion on the question of sexual abuse and rape.
Independent on Sunday, 29 June 2014
John Peel was allowed to run a ‘schoolgirl of the year’ competition on his late night show
Five years ago, Richard Curtis made a film called The Boat That Rocked about the pirate radio stations that broadcast pop music to the UK in the 1960s from ships moored offshore. Unusually for Curtis, the film was a box-office flop despite an ensemble cast which included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans. At the time I thought the project was wrong-headed, presenting an uncritical view of a pop culture which was sexually predatory and fuelled by testosterone. Against the background of the latest revelations about Jimmy Savile, its infatuation with the sexual antics of 1960s DJs is even harder to comprehend.
After last week’s shocking reports, commentators are asking how on earth Savile gained access to vulnerable patients in a series of National Health Service hospitals. The naivety of hospital bosses in allowing this creepy narcissist to roam their corridors unchecked is breathtaking, but it is a story which goes back to the beginning of celebrity culture in the 1960s. Savile’s only “qualification” to work in the NHS was the fame suddenly attaching to DJs who had access to the biggest names in pop music. He first worked for the BBC in 1964, when he presented the very first edition of Top of the Pops; footage from 1976 shows him committing a brazen assault on a young female member of the ToTP audience while they were on camera.
The BBC’s bemused involvement with pop culture accelerated in 1967 when the Labour government closed down pirate radio and demanded the corporation set up Radio 1 to fill the gap. This was the moment when the BBC, which had previously been sniffy about pop music, embraced a phenomenon it had neither anticipated nor understood. Savile did not work on offshore pirate stations, coming to Radio 1 a year later from Radio Luxembourg, but many of the DJs who launched the new BBC station did.
In this all-male environment – there were no women among them until Annie Nightingale joined in 1970 – sexist attitudes were commonplace, which the BBC did nothing to challenge. It even allowed John Peel, who arrived at Radio 1 from pirate station Radio London, to run a “schoolgirl of the year” competition on his late-night show.
Did the BBC know nothing about the predatory atmosphere on the ships where so many of its new stars had been employed? Here is former Radio 1 DJ Johnnie Walker describing how women were treated on Radio Caroline, widely believed to have been the model used for The Boat That Rocked: “So girls used to come to the ship and we’d tie their boat alongside and we used to get the engineer to take their boyfriends to look round the transmitters … and we’d take them downstairs to the cabins.” Peel put his finger on the BBC’s failure to think about what it might be importing when he recalled how he got his own job: “I was one of the first lot on Radio 1 and I think it was mainly because … Radio 1 had no real idea what they were doing so they had to take people off the pirate ships.”
If Peel were still alive, it is hard to believe that he would not be a person of interest to Operation Yewtree, the police investigation into Savile and others. In 1965, when he was in his late twenties and working on a radio station in Dallas, Peel married a 15-year-old girl; the marriage was legal in Texas but would have broken the law in other American states. Later, he boasted in interviews about teenage girls in the US queuing to offer sex to their favourite DJs, making the distasteful claim that one of his “regulars” was just 13. Shortly after the Savile scandal broke, a British woman claimed that she became pregnant by Peel in 1969 at the age of 15 after having sex with him in his BBC studio.
Others of Peel’s former colleagues at Radio 1 have attracted the attention of Operation Yewtree. One of the station’s original DJs, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was convicted years ago, and suspicion continues to hang over others, who again cannot be named for legal reasons. This is not to make presumptions about the guilt or innocence of individuals in any trial that may yet take place. It is about an abrupt cultural shift in the 1960s, when the rules governing sexual conduct were relaxed in a way which gave unparalleled licence to well-known men. Feminists have understood this for years: under-age sex was just as much a criminal offence in 1968, when the Rolling Stones fantasised about having sex with a 15-year-old girl in “Stray Cat Blues”, as it is in 2014.
For a time, however, one stuffy British institution after another fell under the spell of men who had made their names in the brash new entertainment industry. It all began at the BBC, which opened doors elsewhere – hospitals, the police, even Downing Street – for Savile. This weekend his offending in the NHS is rightly in the spotlight, but the corporation bears a heavy responsibility for the monster it created.
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.
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