Murdochgate: A scandal that’s only just beginning…

If you were watching closely enough yesterday you’ll have noticed that there was a buzz all around Westminster and associated media ports over the revelation that two of Rupert Murdoch’s papers have been conducting regular fishing trips against public figures (some political, some not), and that they had settled with three ‘victims’ for £1 million (or ’shut-the-f*ck-up’ payments as Rick puts in this excellent piece on where all of this is really heading).

That’s a public interest story, if ever there was one.

There was also suggestions that the practice of hacking (or phreaking, if we’re to keep Dizzy happy) people’s phones for the contents of their voice mail messages. No relax, that is still illegal.

In fact, the News of the World’s royal correspondent found himself banged up for two years when he was convicted of doing it three years ago. His boss, Andy Coulson, protesting he knew nothing about it, resigned, as Guido notes, before the Press Complaints Commission (a body Mr Murdoch has been keen not see superseded in recent years) could press him on his detailed level of knowledge (or lack thereof) of what exactly his royal correspondent Clive Goodman was up to…

Now to be clear, what the Guardian has is a lot of circumstantial material which suggests that the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Press Complaints Commission were all less than rigorous in following up serious complaints from the public. That material also suggests the News of the World may have illegally bugged voicemails affecting several thousands of individuals.

But it’s also clear that Labour were more inclined to look for the head of David Cameron’s Head of Communication, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, than to seriously question the way Mr Murdoch’s News International newspapers have been illegally prosecuting their various suites against a wide range of public figures.

Andrew Neil on his BBC blog yesterday outlines the utter shambles this story leaves much of the British political and media establishment in.

Mr Cameron, sticking with the combative instinct that’s seen him fend off attacks on other close colleagues, met the cameras outside his home and backed his man saying everyone deserved a second chance (though his back was turned when he replied Coulson’s job was safe).

Half way through the day his courage under fire seemed rewarded when John Yates, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, made a public statement saying that the investigation into the Goodman case would not be re-opened. The Lib Dems called for an external enquiry.

Then by 6pm, Nick Davis, the Guardian journalist who broke the story was on the news that the press were taking a misdirection in believing this was somehow a conclusive rebuttal to his story. Today in the paper he writes:

…as an answer to the Guardian’s story, it looks very much like an attempt to avoid giving any answer at all. The Guardian’s story is not about Clive Goodman. It is about the activities of News of the World journalists generally. Nobody is suggesting that Goodman alone hacked into thousands of phones.

Former Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Met, Brian Paddick, speaking on this reiterated this point on Newsnight last night. Yates was correct, but like Coulson’s statement earlier in the day, it was couched sufficiently narrowly so as not to address the questions of sheer scale raised by the Guardian story.

There are rumours now of some of the people who’s phones were bugged taking class action suits against the Murdoch papers. And they may not be the only ones before this story’s run. The use of private detectives and various illegal methods of intrusion have been documented in a report by the Information Commissioner three years ago. If you go to page 11 you’ll see a table of those papers most engaged in ‘blagging’ (the illegal trade in personal information)…

This has the potential to open up a big black hole under British tabloids who’s power of the British political classes has been largely unchallenged for almost forty years…

For my money, the Coulson story is collateral to this much larger one. It doesn’t mean that it may not have serious consequences though. David Cameron, who has been almost faultless in his judgement and his nerve for nearly three years yesterday took a huge gamble in backing his man. Not least since the questions are only likely to multiply from here on in. The relief with which some Tory bloggers seized on the Yates statement may indicate just how vulnerable Coulson’s position actually is. Even the normally nerveless Guido is setting next Tuesday’s Select Committee hurdle as the one Coulson must clear.

And yet there is a calculation here that the story will die sooner than its progenitors hope, probably best articulated by James Forsyth on the Spectator blog yesterday:

- First, he is important enough to the Cameron project that the leadership will be prepared to expend political capital to protect him. However, the sight of this will make those back backbenchers who feel they were thrown under the bus during the expenses scandal even more bitter.

– Second, the majority of newspapers won’t want to follow this story too aggressively for fear of blowback; there are few papers that have entirely clean hands on this stuff.

– Third, I suspect most political journalists won’t want to burn their bridges with Coulson, who will maintain his current position through at least the party’s first term in government and most politicians won’t want to go to war with the Murdoch empire.

Not pretty, but pretty realistic. It however I suspect James has underestimated the deadening effect this story will have on the Conservatives’ heretofore reliable fireproofing against the growing public sense that all politicians are on the make. Garbo at the Wardman Wire grabs the back-kick for the Tories in this in two separate posts. Last night:

…if Coulson was in any way part of phone tapping while he was at the News of the World, then he has to go. Simple. Forget all this talk about him not being a Tory employee at the time – David Cameron simply cannot have the man who would be Director of Communications for the government of Great Britain [sic] someone who authorised a phone tapping exercise. [emphasis added]

And this morning in the headline, Garbo notes an underlying problem for the Tories on this. They are on the wrong side of the civil liberties argument. After the Damian Green arrest debacle, they are reduced to hoping and praying that the general fear of the tabloids will simply make this go away. In the meantime, their chief spin doctor is caught between looking like he was less than that open with the truth of what he actually did for the News of the World (since lawyers often write whole stories for the tabloids to thread their way around issues of provenance, you’d be a fool to discount that as summarily as we’re being expected to), or (much more implausibly) incompetent.

This story will certainly run, the question is where is it going to stop… It’s not the kind of tawdry detail the proprietor of the Wall Street Journal needs buzzing round his feet

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  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Excellent summary, Mick. It covers a fearful [sic] lot of ground.

    Beyond that, I thought the general attitude was best put by Rory Carr, @ 03:22 PM, yesterday, on the parallel thread by Brian Walker @ 12:16 PM :

    Remember when we were all young and starry-eyed and believed so fervently that a free press was a sure guarantor of democracy and liberty? What feckin’ eejits we were then.

    Meanwhile the sheer scale of the thing defeats credence:

    The Guardian said confidential files compiled by Britain’s official information commissioner showed that one private investigator tracked down by the police had received a total of 13,343 requests, from 305 reporters, for information that typically required hacking into confidential databases, including tax returns, phone records, social security data, bank statements, records of drivers’ licenses and information on police computers.

    Repeat: that’s one “investigator” (less polite terms exist).

    Then there’s the braggart shamelessness :

    Newspapers have long paid for stories. The popular press in particular relies on scoops acquired with a chequebook. On the Daily Mail, I found that £7,500 was the magic number that turned protests about an invasion of privacy into a willingness to talk…

    The amount of detail available could be remarkable. For £50 or £100 it was possible to get an address from a car registration number; an individual’s social security claims from their address; travel arrangements from computerised flight lists. Do you know the most important detail to trace the most reclusive person? Their GP’s address. Everybody needs a GP to access the health service and the family doctor is local, so it is easy to narrow the search. The best key to getting useful information from databases? A date of birth.

    That’s Dominic Kennedy, “Investigations Editor”, on page 7 of the print edition of today’s Murdoch Times. For some reasons, to locate the on-line version one needs to plumb down a bit: “> Home > Business > Industry sectors > Media”. Hmmm, curious that.

    The gem is the next sentence of that piece:

    In practice, there seemed to be no law against all this.

    Ah, the public interest defence! (a.k.a. “can’t afford to sue, daren’t sue, won’t sue”).

    But there lurks an uncertainty: “thrice armed is he who has a public interest defence in the filing cabinet first”. Also known as blackmail.

    Suddenly I recall that graffito at the back of King’s Cross Station: “The DPP kerb-crawled here”. In that context, the reluctance of all involved, Met Police, PCC, CPS, MPs, might go down to the sinister implication of Kennedy’s punchline:

    When a suspected serial murderer of prostitutes was arrested and his car seized by police, did the Press check the numberplate to get his identity? You bet they did — and the interested public read about it the next day.

  • willis

    The ICO link in full

    http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/corporate/research_and_reports/ico-wppnow-0602.pdf

    Page 11 is indeed a cracker

    No sign of the BBC or the Guardian (Obs maybe) eh Guido!

    http://order-order.com/2009/07/09/will-coulson-survive-the-select-committee-grilling/

    “Stolen documents appear in the Guardian and on the BBC all the time.”

    Any chance of some proof? – or just the usual hype.

  • willis

    Malcolm

    Sorry for being a pedant but the Kennedy link doesn’t seem to work.

    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/media/article6677492.ece

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    willis @ 02:49 PM:

    Sorry: probably one of my many bads. Thanks for posting the correct one.

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Now that’s odd: I’ve just had the same problem with the Information Commissioner’s Office and “What price privacy now?”

    It won’t hot-link, but it pastes into the command line a treat.

  • Rory Carr

    It is important to understand what is the real purpose behind the illegal gathering of juicy, harmful information about individuals in the public eye. It is not, as we might first suspect merely to “out” them in a juicy three-page spread in order to add to a newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue, it is rather to have the individual concerned be made aware that the paper has the goods on them and that if they don’t toe the line, keep their head below the parapet then that is when the shit will hit the fan.

    The harmful consequences of this form of blackmail for the democratic process cannot be overstated; if for example the actions that a public figure might take in conscience that should be inimical to the wider interests of the newspaper’s proprietors were to be curtailed or diluted because of undue pressure related to the holding of private information obtained illegally.

    Indeed it would not be amiss of the public to ponder, if the investigation into this sordid affair is to be shut down, whether indeed that may not be as a result of the fear of illegally obtained information gleaned concerning those who would and should be responsible for seeing through such investigation being made public by the very organs that are under investigation.

    When the Murdochs of this world are able to dictate to parliament it is high time that we had a parliament with the balls to take on not only the Murdochs but also the Barclays, the Rothermeres and those others who, while stoutly refusing to pay any UK income tax themselves, are to the fore in applying pressure on parliament as to how tax revenue should be spent.

  • willis
  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Chris Huhne of the LibDems, following up an earlier statement, has just chucked the thing to the IPCC (who seem rapidly to be acquiring judicial review status). His submission is on line at

    http://page.politicshome.com/uk/liberal_democrats_refer_phone_tapping_case_to_ippc.html

    or at:

    http://www.libdemvoice.org/coulsongate-day-2-lib-dems-refer-notw-phonetapping-case-to-the-independent-police-complaints-commission-15612.html#more-15612

    Through gritted teeth, I have to admit Huhne says it all quite adequately.