The idea that private investigators working for the newspaper could have hacked into the phones of the parents of missing and dead children, and the relatives of the 7/7 bombing, is almost beyond belief. However all the evidence is increasingly beginning to point in that direction. For the first time this has really led to public anger in the long running saga. It was easy to turn a blind eye when it was just celebrities involved, but invading the privacy of the victims of tragedies is another matter entirely.
What we need now is a proper investigation. Not just the usual Press Complaints Commission whitewash but a full parliamentary commission looking into these claims. There are four areas that I think need to be properly examined:
1) The original police investigation and the relationship between the police and News International
For years the general line from the police was that there wasn’t any evidence of wrong doing, or not enough evidence to get a conviction. It now seems that there was an awful lot of evidence and that the police did nothing with it. Something somewhere has gone horribly wrong. The investigation was either fatally flawed in which case its incompetence, or the police were influenced by the News International agenda. Both are very worrying possibilities and shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.
2) The internal workings of News International
There is clearly something very wrong at the heart of the News of the World in terms of how its journalists conduct themselves. So far their strategy for dealing with the allegations has followed a three-step process. They first tried to argue that the phone hacking was the work of a few rogue investigators and reporters. It now seems that many more were aware of what was going on. Secondly they’ve attempted to pay off as many of the hacking victims as possible to keep the cases from coming to court. While that has worked for celebrities I doubt it will work for ordinary members of the public who have suffered terrible losses; they will demand justice. Their third strategy, that seems to have started this morning, is to start blaming ex-editors and management, starting with Andy Coulson. The problem with this approach is that you quickly run out of people to sacrifice. Rebekah Brooks has insisted that she won’t go, no matter what. If BBC journalists had been caught doing this then it’s likely that the Murdoch press would be demanding that the Director General and the head of the BBC trust take responsibility step down. Instead Rebekah Brooks has decided to head an investigation examining her own behaviour. This is obviously, fundamentally wrong.
3) The Press Complaints Commission should review its own procedures
While a free press should be the bedrock of any democracy there is a difference between self-regulation and letting journalists get away with whatever they feel like in pursuit of a good story. So far the PCC has done an appalling job at holding the press to account. I’ve yet to meet a single a journalist who thought it was actually fulfilling its role, and many hold it in open contempt. The recent documentary Starsuckers has copious amounts of footage of various editors and newspaper executives testifying to a parliamentary select committee that the PCC does a wonderful job and is not given enough credit. Considering that these same people staff it, to quote Mandy Rice-Davies, ’they would say that wouldn’t they’.
4) The wider political implications of this scandal need to be examined
The political ramifications are more difficult to quantify. Certainly serious questions need to be asked with regards to Andy Coulson’s role in all of this. On a broader level though I think we need to look more closely at the relationship between Rupert Murdoch, his entourage and the political elite in this country. At best it seems far too cosy, at worst it appears to be collusion. After 1992 The Sun helped create the myth that they had won the election for the Conservative Party and as a result every government since then, to my mind, seem desperate to keep the Murdoch press onside. It isn’t healthy in a democracy for one man to have so much influence over both political parties. The BSkyB deal, if it goes through, will give Murdoch even more power to the point where it will become almost impossible for anyone to seriously challenge his dominance in the media. Certain people in the press like Simon Jenkins of the Guardian argue that Murdoch is the best thing to ever happen to the media in this country. With all due respect I disagree.