The closure of the News Of The World
with the recent stunning revelations of phone hacking
may please many people, but speaking on BBC’s Question Time
last night, Hugh Grant said it was a cynical stunt, a domain name for a similar tabloid having already been registered. One high powered politician, Douglas Alexander, said on the same programme that it was not simply a case of changing a paper but of changing the culture.
The News Of The World
has always been its own biggest – and uncritical - fan; the January 12, 1997 edition ran a story it billed as an exclusive: CLINTON, THE LOVE-CHILD AND THE MISSING HOOKER: Double nightmare that looms over Bill's big day
This so-called exclusive, the claim that Bill Clinton had sired a child by a black prostitute while Governor of Arkansas, had actually been going the rounds in the Deep South for years, but no mainstream newspaper would touch it, probably for a good reason!
Closer to home, in June 2009 it published a story
about how a certain Alexander Bacon
had offered a £10,000 reward for information leading to the acquittal of Michael Stone
. Alexander who? And who was it offered the reward? This story was an inaccurate rewrite of an article by Chris Murphy in the previous week’s Kent On Sunday
. Inaccuracy is one thing, but accuracy that is obtained at the cost of violating people’s privacy, or even worse, jeopardising serious ongoing police investigations, is even less desirable.
While News International, the News Of The World
, or even Rupert Murdoch alone are being portrayed by some as the villain of the piece, there are bigger issues here.
Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940) put it in a nutshell:
“You cannot hope to bribe nor twist
Thank God the British journalist,
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there's no occasion to.”
Most people today would accept that and similar statements uncritically, but whatever we think of or expect from journalists, the police are a different kettle of fish. While any journalists who have hacked or been responsible for hacking people’s mobile phones should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, the police should not even have entered this equation. There must be, as is now being mooted, a full public inquiry chaired by a High Court Judge, with the power to subpoena witnesses and demand answers.
Looking beyond this though, we should realise – as Hugh Grant says – that it is not just the News Of The World
, and not just News International. To that we might add that it is not just
the media. The British Government routinely eavesdrops on our telephone and electronic communications; it is not permitted to do this without warrant, so it gets around the law by contracting out the dirty work to the NSA
Occasionally, a criminal trial will collapse because the police refuse to disclose the evidence on which it is based; much of this evidence and intelligence comes from illegal eavesdropping actions, including investigations which have no hint of terrorism or national security involvement.
Odious though it may be for the tabloids to hack the phones of a teenage murder victim
, the phones of parents of murdered children
and terrorist victims, or even simply those of A List movie stars like Hugh Grant, it is not just the tabloids, and not just the media. Cleaning these
Augean stables will require more than simply shutting down one tabloid newspaper or lopping off a few heads. It will need more than a simple public inquiry, it will require, as Douglas Alexander said, a change in the culture. It remains to be seen if this will happen, regardless of any number of official inquiries or even legislation.