Phone tapping: No new Guardian facts to dent NoW rebuttal

As Mick has just offered a shrewd review of the political vibes, I’ll go on today’s press stand-off. Certainly, you can never fault the News of the World for lack of chutzpah.

The great phone tapping scandal centres on two questions: were the News of the World Goodman and Mulcaire convictions in 2007 for phone tapping the tip of an icebeg of “thousands “ of other cases as the Guardian suggests?

And can David Cameron’s PR chief Andy Coulson, the NoW editor at the time, continue to deny convincingly he knew nothing about the Guardian’s scoop of a confidential multimillion payout to three victims? The ball is now in the Guardian’s court.

On the face of it, the Guardian’s chances of winning the overall argument look about as good as England’s hopes of regaining the Ashes. Early days, but not great. For sure, they’ll derive some consolation from the fact that DPP is reviewing the police investigation so instantly and unconvincingly defended by Scotland Yard.

But if there had been much more to uncover, I would have expected the Guardian’s stable –mate the Observer to publish fresh disclosures today. Instead – nothing. Only a careful warning from columnist Peter Preston, and former Guardian editor who himself used less than straightforward methods to obtain damning evidence in the Jonathan Aitken affair. Preston warns: “Don’t sell the shabby dealings and evasions of all this short – but don’t rock with melodramatic horror, either.”

The News of the World comes out with a great counter-blast of comprehensive denial on the second point today and seeks to represent the whole affair as a just another episode in the party political battle and increasing desperation in Fleet St circulation war.

Neither the police, nor our own internal investigations, has found any evidence to support allegations that News of the World journalists have accessed voicemails of any individuals.

Nor instructed private investigators or other third parties to access voice mails of any individual.

Nor found that there was any systemic corporate illegality by any executive to suppress evidence to the contrary.

If the police, or ourselves, had uncovered such evidence, charges would have been brought.

The Guardian slyly linked a separate investigation by the Information Commissioner to allegations of phone tapping. That report, which named almost all national newspapers and covered activities as far back as 2001, referred to 23 journalists from the News of the World and The Sun.

Along with banks and government agencies, they had received confidential information through a private investigator which, the Commissioner deemed, breached the Data Protection Act.

The NoW’s stable mate the Times had already come out with a detailed rebuttal:

The Guardian said there were “thousands” of victims but produced no evidence for its extravagant claims. John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, and Gwyneth Paltrow, the actress, were said to be among the victims.

But again no evidence was produced to show that they had been on anything but a wish list. John Yates, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police who reviewed the Goodman case files last week, had already announced that he had found nothing that warranted further investigations or charges.

Andy Hayman, the former Met assistant commissioner, who led the original inquiry, said yesterday there was only evidence that a handful of phones had been tampered with and “we put our best detectives on the case and left no stone unturned”.

Yates’ conclusions seem to me to be pretty complacent. He, a self-proclaimed fresh investigator, reached his conclusions in less than 24 hours after the Guardian story broke. This is only viable if you believe that the Information Commissioner’s dossier of “thousands” of examples of data protection breaches did not amount to thousands of crimes.

This what the Times believes:

It appears The Guardian may have conflated the Goodman case files with the alleged misdemeanours from the information commissioner’s files, which detailed a huge number of contacts of journalists with private investigators, even if it did not outline any specific offences… the suggestion that there might be thousands of crimes that had never been properly investigated was almost immediately dismissed by John Yates in his review of the Goodman files. Prescott’s phone had never in fact been hacked.

In 2006 Richard Thomas, then the information commissioner, published a report on the unlawful trade in private information, What Price Privacy?. It included a tariff for various categories of information. For example, obtaining an ex-directory telephone number cost £75, while a car number-plate check to match it to an address cost £150. Six months later Thomas provided more details of one of his team’s cases, Operation Motorman, which had targeted the private investigator Stephen Whittamore. In a raid on Whittamore’s Hampshire home, details of 305 journalists who had used the investigator’s services between April 2001 and March 2003 were found.
According to the report, more than 50 Daily Mail journalists had bought material from Whittamore on 952 occasions. Other newspapers on the list included the Daily Mirror (681 transactions) the News of the World (228), The Observer (103) and The Sunday Times (4).
While Thomas suggested that the evidence bolstered his case that those convicted of trading unlawfully in personal information should be punished with a two-year jail term, his report was fundamentally flawed.
He did not identify which of the transactions might be considered unlawful and which newspapers had public interest defences or were requesting publicly available information, such as electoral roll checks. Thomas’s report ended as a damp squib and he later had to apologise to The Sunday Times for publishing misleading information about the paper.

Question 1, what Andy Coulson knew when he knew it , is the one for media commentator Roy Greenslade and the Independent’s David Randall:

“..the large payments to Taylor and Armstrong almost certainly mean other News International reporters were involved. Goodman – an exclusively royal reporter – would not be fishing in football’s murky waters for stories.

The size of the payouts – in the case of Taylor, nearly seven times the sum awarded to Max Mosley for filming him at an S&M gathering – triggered the queries: why so much? What were News International so afraid of that it should pay out this kind of cash The answer, if there is one, lies in the documents that the DPP is now reviewing…

….(The NoW’s rebuttal)s is either chutzpah of the first order, or the words – hand-crafted over several days – of an organisation confident that the accusations against it cannot be proven..

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London