18 July 2011

The Anatomy of the press scandal

As the days turn to weeks many people write many words in an attempt to understand just what this press scandal is and what it means.
Is hacking just a storm in a teacup?
There are some who would like the matter to be contained, for it to be a narrowly focused question of why an individual newspaper hired an individual man to hack into the phones of celebrities, politicians and ordinary people who just happened to find themselves in the news.
There are many who hope that this is all a storm in a teacup, that of the thousands of potential victims in the Mulcaire notebooks only a handful will have suffered anything more than a theoretical intrusion into their privacy.
There are also many who fervently hope that there is nothing within these notebooks to link what is being found to other newspapers, but the opinion from people who have watched these matters closely throughout the years is that hacking and other forms of intrusion is an infection that is widespread throughout the media. It probably began when Mobile phones first began to be widely used.
Intrusion is not new. The media hunger for salacious stories has been satisfied by many different means. Hacking was simply an invisible way of doing it with no chance of being discovered elbow deep in someone’s rubbish bins.
Mobile phones and the media became the story many years ago now, with the interception of mobile phone conversations by members of the royal family.  Hacking into messages is simply a natural development from that, and the fact that it was illegal does not seem to have been much of a restraint to people involved in such a potentially lucrative practice.
The problem that underlies all of this is the routine blurring of the line between what is of interest to the public, and will therefore sell a lot of newspapers, and what is in the public interest.  This is one of the questions that we must hope Lord Leverson will attempt to clarify in his Inquiry.
People who found themselves too much of “interest to the public” especially the bereaved have had some defence against the excess of press intrusion when they knew it was happening, but they had no effective defence against this invisible and completely illegal theft of their feelings.
Who was part of the trade in information?
Hacking is the starting point of this scandal, but the problem is so much wider than this.
What is still to emerge is how did this industrial scale theft of phone numbers and pin numbers come about.  Who encouraged it? Did they understand what was being done? How many people throughout the country are implicated in this illegal trade in personal information?
How are stories verified?
With the question of who knew about the trade I think that the starting point should be what action did the papers take to ensure themselves that the stories they were printing were true?  
We heard in the Select Committee on hacking in 2009 that the news of the world employed a legal advisor, who was there in part to ensure that the paper did not leave itself open to the possibility of expensive liable suits. This was especially necessary for a paper that prided itself on exposing uncomfortable truths.  My assumption is  (and I may be completely wrong about this) that it would be simple good practices for any editor to a story was true, and would not harm the reputation or pockets of the paper.
The stories being captured by phone hacking had the huge advantage that they were certainly essentially true, and they were certainly exclusive.
We need to understand the verification process that operated within the papers. How do they know if a story is accurate, How do they know what sources of information were being used? Would there be people within the paper who will actually have listened to the messages?
As the suspicions of phone hacking has grown over the years more and more of the victims have challenged the News of the World  about the source of the “exclusives”. They have done so with considerable success at the cost of millions in out of court settlements.
Who authorised out of court settlements?
This raises big questions. Someone in a position of some authority had to sign off these cheques, and it is reasonable to assume that they would have wanted to know why they were doing so.
The storm clouds have been gathering for a long while now. I did not really become aware of it all until 2009 but many people have been tracking this story now for years before that, and it is these people who have insistently raised the uncomfortable questions about David Cameron’s former head of communications, Andy Coulson.
Was there a cover up?
These questions are big and deeply worrying. If people knew that phone hacking had been an issue for almost a decade then why despite internal investigations, a police investigation and a review of the investigation, why despite bin bags full of evidence would no one publically recognise the scale of the problem.  
Were News of the world and by extension News International hiding things from the police?
Were the police sweeping things under the carpet and if so why?
Why didn’t more politicians speak out?
A small number of politicians knew of the allegations and were demanding action, what are the different reasons why politicians from different parties were not giving them their unequivocal support in this?
Where politicians simply accepting the assurances of the police that there was not a significant problem?
Where politicians hesitant to pick a fight with News of the World and the Murdoch empire because in the shadow of the MPs expenses scandal which had indiscriminately smeared  so many MPs, they understood and feared the consequences for themselves as individuals, and for their chances of electoral success?
Was it because for some MPs and politicians it actively suited them for the sun and the news of the world to have a free hand to do as they pleased?
Was it because being and remaining on the right side of Rupert Murdoch mattered?
Why didn’t the Press complaints commission deal with the concerns?
There is a regulatory body for the press, but it is a body run by editors for editors. It has insufficient powers to investigate, it takes people at their word.
David Cameron and Murdoch
There is the invidious position of David Cameron.
David Cameron is a man who places a great reliance on friends, and Rupert Murdoch is a man who lives to exert influence.  We have seen through the friendships forged within the chipping Norton triangle the way in which the interests of David Cameron may have become merged with the interests of Rupert Murdoch in a way that may now be deeply harmful to both.
We have seen through accounts of the networking conducted by the Murdoch empire, how controlling access to power, the circles within the glamorous settings of the summer parties may involve many people in subtle forms of corruption.
David Cameron and Andy Coulson
The friendships at the heart of these circles we now hear brought Andy Coulson into the employment of David Cameron at the suggestion of Rebekah Brooks.  This is something extraordinary. We have a highly skilled media manipulator, someone who understands exactly what sparks the public interest, and what sells papers, able to act as Murdoch’s man in number 10 and as Cameron’s man in the media.
Just think of the opportunities that this creates.  
What is the impact on the way in which political communications were carried out?
We have not yet even begun to analyse the way in which the communications operation worked, at the Conservative headquarters, and later at number 10, but we know we have at the heart of it a man with the skills to package stories, a particular view of the world that is in tune with the views of the Murdoch empire, and he now has access to the Conservative party machine, a machine which would be primed to pass good stories through so that they could achieve maximum impact.
We saw the way in which Cameron in opposition used Prime Ministers questions to inflate what he described as “Daily Mail Specials” into stories with national mainstream media significance.  We have seen how many of these stories were based on “individuals” in true tabloid style, and that many were also based on misleading information.
In my own town I have seen a story which encompassed both these elements used to devastating political effect.  I believe when we begin to look more closely at the way in which communications was conducted in the years from 2007 that we will find much more that will concern us.
Putting public interest at the heart of the relationship with the press.
All of this raises many big questions. We have lifted the lid on a press as the plaything of powerful men, operating in the interests of the few, and contemptuous of the needs or rights of those people who become the focus of interest.
When we look we will find out much that relates  to the specifics of phone hacking and the individuals at the centre of this particular story, but I believe that we will also find the failings of the press regulatory system that permits many misleading stories to be told, and does not enforce proportionate apologies.
The current PCC has at its heart the Editors code committee, made up of editors. This must change.
Reimagining the press.
The press has been, for as long as we can remember the means by which rich and powerful individuals can promote their view of the world. If this is fundamentally changed by the changes in regulation that will come, then where does this leave us?
There is a real need for a different kind of press. Something that really does address the communication of the problems that confront us all, something that brings people together to find solutions.  This is completely at variance with the interests of powerful press proprietors, who actively seek to create division, to be on the winning side and to control.
If we change the ground rules, if we create a press that is in the interests of the many, will the proprietors simply close up shop, or will they adjust themselves to the needs of a changed world?