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about it, resigned, as Guido notes, before the Press Complaints Commission (a body Mr Murdoch has been keen not see superseded in recent years) could press him on his detailed level of knowledge (or lack thereof) of what exactly his royal correspondent Clive Goodman was up to…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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