Murdochgate: Time to stop feeding a desparate and overbearing ferryman..?

The #Murdochgate affair trundles on with big guns coming out on both sides. On Sunday Tim Montgomery one of the most respected figures (on all sides) of the British blogosphere came out with not so much a defence of Mr Coulson (no one who looks closely at his alleged role in a NOTW fishing expeditions can do that) as a spirited attack on the Guardian.

Meanwhile Nick Davies at the Committee for Culture, Media and Sport yesterday, has named the News of the World’s senior correspondent as having received transcripts of these illegally hacked voicemail messages:

…exchanged between Professional Football Association boss Gordon Taylor and his legal adviser. The missive was apparently sent in June 2005 by a member of the News of the World’s staff, from a company account, to private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was later jailed for hacking phone messages. The email stated: “This is a transcript for Neville.” Mr Davies said that was a clear reference to Mr Thurlbeck, although he accepted that none of the material was ever used in a story.

On Monday Alan Watkins in the Independent, who rarely pulls his political punches, reckoned that Coulson should have taken the jail term rather than his junior royal correspondent:

The story went out – and it was repeated last week – that Mr Coulson “did not know” what his subordinates were getting up to. It defies belief that he did not know. In any case, he ought to have known and in any event he carries the responsibility. That is the nature of the editor’s job. He or she is the person who goes to jail. Accordingly, Mr Cameron and Mr Coulson had placed themselves in a false position from the very beginning.

In any case, Coulson is much less important than the egregious invasions of privacy the paper appears to have involved itself in. To give him his credit, Iain Dale is the first serious Tory blogger to come out and attack the very practice Mr Coulson was running at the NOTW, and attack the practice of ‘blagging’:

…imagine if this happened to you. Imagine if a ‘blagger’ got hold of your own details. Imagine if they accessed your voicemail and used it in some nefarious way. How would you gain redress? The truth is, of course, that legally it would be very difficult because our legal system in this area is stacked in favour of those with the resources to use it.

Yet ‘blagging’ is only the tip of the iceberg. It often involves three, four, five or even six ‘private investigators’ setting upon their targets. They hunt in packs but pick off their victims one by one. It is an art, as anyone who has read their Raymond Chandler will know, which is surreptitious, duplicitous and often involves a serious breach of the criminal law.

As Iain notes, when perpetrated by a large multinational corporation there appears to be no redress. Unless you happen to be the Queen of England. Even Iain’s wealthy chief investor at Total Politics, Lord Ashcroft, could not get a satisfactory result against Murdoch’s Sunday Times. It goes without saying that this is an extremely powerful position for anyone to find themselves in. As the Romans used to say “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

But in the UK Mr Murdoch is much more than a simple guard. The aura that surrounds him and his figurative ‘safe full of politician’s dirty little secrets’ (gleaned we now surmise by legitimate means and by foul) may have exaggerated his role in UK public life, but there are few on either side of the House of Commons who are prepared to stand up to him public. His influence as an industry lobbyist is legend; he’s credited with stymieing attempts at tightening press regulation by the Major, Blair and, as recently as last year, Gordon Brown administrations.

In the Lords the other day the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Miller referred to the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, under Clause 75 last year. Liberal Bureaucracy marks this intriguing little passage from her recollections:

…we debated whether there should be a prison sentence of two years for people, including journalists, who were caught unlawfully obtaining personal data. But we also debated whether there should be a special defence for journalism and, if so, what that defence should be.

During the passage of that Act, the legal manager of News International, Alastair Brett, e-mailed me and sought a meeting. News International was most concerned at the idea of the increased tariffs or diminished defences. Now we can see why. It put tremendous pressure on the Government to drop the idea of prison sentences for journalists being included in the Act. Was it actually the Prime Minister who instructed that that legislation be dropped.

As the Press Gazette noted at the time, just weeks after Mr Murdoch called on Mr Cameron to provide “less government and freer markets”, Mr Cameron responded by offering to remove the policy making powers of the communications regulator Ofcom when they recommended Sky TV (once a huge financial drain, now Murdoch’s only significant profit making venture in the UK) be forced to give up some of its premium sports channels as “most appropriate way of ensuring fair and effective competition”..

The Guardian’s research has only just begun to reveal the extent of the British press’s ‘dirty little secrets’. Namely that some of the country’s largest news organisations have been using their huge resources to run what have effectively become their own private espionage operations. As a result they are dragging the reputation of their own trade through the gutter at a time when the industry is already suffering the tightest commercial squeeze in its modern history.

To the political pressures on journalists to surrender their sources to the state (and on editors from politicians) we can add an internal pressure on journalists to break the law systematically (i.e. far beyond any practical imperative to pre-define a ‘public interest’) on behalf of a business interest more preoccupied with dispatching whomever it defines as it political opponents (in Coulson’s case that once meant George Osborne, now its Gordon Brown) than in bringing government to account for its actions.

The temptation will be to circle their wagons, mouth a few platitudes, carry on regardless and hope the stink eventually goes away. That would be a big mistake for an industry whose fortunes, future and credibility is headed straight down the toilet after those supposedly scum bag politicians they so love to hate…

As for politicians, well Tony Blair famously complained about the feral media, (what could be more feral than a newspaper in which the editor pleads ignorance of the illegal games his journalists are up to?) whilst continuing to feed the beast out of his back pocket. It’s surely time to quit playing footsie with big media (or muttering into their tea about what the media is doing to UK politics) and find the courage to set their own political agendas and see them through a full term.

That means calling time on paying extortionate fees to what has clearly become an increasingly desperate and overbearing ferryman.

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  • William

    For the Left, especially journalists like Polly Toynbee to talk of honesty is a bit of a joke….they wouldn’t know the truth if it hit them on the face. Tim Montgomerie is totally correct in what he wrote….this is an attempt at payback by the discredited regime that is sadly currently in Government in our country. The quicker we are rid of the loony lefties the better….roll on the next election, when we will have an opportunity to get rid of this fraud of a government.

  • michael

    Reading the guardian article, and the respected blogger’s view of Murdoch’s influence, one of those phrases ‘de kidz’ use on forums sprang to mind.

    Obvious troll is obvious.

    And my captcha is ‘sun’
    Freaky stuff.

  • Somewhat selective criticism from Iain Dale, who also failed to acknowledge the blagging done by his allies (who seek personal data just so they can publish it as a form of intimidation).

    Also, I find it very difficult to believe that the newspapers have resisted a return to blagging (or if they really stopped at all) especially in light of the obvious downturn in standards in the last 6 months (newspapers reporting ‘terror plots’ based on the word of a fantasist and doing nothing to correct what they now know to be false reports, the pouncing on survivors of Dunblane the moment they came of age, etc.)

    As for Murdoch, this scandal does have the elements required to seriously do harm to his wallet/reputation… if enough of his targets have the courage to band together and fight the bastard.

  • Mick Fealty


    The outgoing information commissioner is of the opinion that certain company’s (Dacre’s Mail being a case in point) have massively cleaned up their act.

    But they certain haven’t stopped, according to my understanding. Whatever the partial nature of Iain’s disclosure, it is good to hear people from the right side of the house beginning to come out on this. It is way too important for petty party bitching.

    The journalists and the papers involved get struck by a form of desperate hysteria, which pretty much blots out any resort to ethics when it comes to privacy. If it was the cops doing this there would rightly be an outcry. That is the press means government is subject to two restraining principles: the cringe of government interfering with the free conduct of the press; and the fear that someone is going to take out one of their dirty little secrets and air it a time convenient to themselves.

    We’ve seen it here in Northern Ireland red in tooth and claw with the sudden outing of British moles inside the Republican movement at moments of apparent deadlock. In that case it may be argued that a government has rights to use subterfuge to curtail further anti state actions in the public interest. And it can be argued that big media can also act in such a way in the public interest. But these guys were and are mostly out on fishing expeditions against what are perceived to be ‘political enemies’.

    Which helps to nicely f*** things up for those who simply want to get down to the business of speaking truth unto power…

  • Iain’s words would carry more weight if he denounced all blagging and meant it. (Oh, and if he spent slightly less time focusing on his investor/patron/whatever Ashcroft.)

    Did you catch Nick Davies in Committee Room 8 yesterday speaking of being in the office of one of these blagging PIs *after* the NOTW prosections/convictions and being intterupted by a call from a newspaper seeking blagging services?

  • Mick Fealty

    Damn, missed it. Couldn’t download it unto my Mac… When is Coulson due to appear?

  • We don’t know yet. All we have so far is this from the Indy’s Michael Savage:

    I can still access the video (see link in tweet below). Would you be interested in Davies’ exact words? No time for it right now, but the task will be even easier in a couple of hours when this tweet of mine with have a specific timestamp on it (meeting started at 10:30AM, math should do the rest):

  • Mick Fealty

    That would be very good. I’m off to London in half an hour, so it will be tomorrow before I can read get to it/act on it.

  • Starting 2 hours into proceedings from 02:02:00 at – i.e. at approx 12:47pm – Nick Davies is asked if he knows or suspects of any blagging/’hacking’ still going on at the moment; mainly if any has been reported to him recently. Nick Davies confirms that he has received reports, with many of the coming in after NOTW’s Friday-night statement… but he declines to give any specifics on the grounds that he has not yet had the time to check evidence, establish the likely truth of any claims made, etc; “It’s wrong for me to pass that on to you, when I haven’t had a chance to check it.”

    However, when pressed, he does offer this…

    Nick Davies: “I’ll tell you one thing I know, from my personal experience, which I think goes towards answering the nub of your question. Steve Wittemore*, the private investigator in Hampshire, was raided in 2003. In 2005, he appeared in Blackfriars Crown Court, pleaded guilty with three of his associates, and got what ever the judge gave them. In the summer of 2006, when I was researching ‘Flat Earth News’, I doorstepped – and got across the doorstep of – one of the people who was in Wittemore’s network, and was interviewing him about all the things that had happened to them, including the conviction the four at the centre- and while I was there, the phone was ringing with national-newspaper journalists ringing this guy up to commission more illegal blagging. So that is a concrete example of the fact that that particular network (or at least some members of that network) did not stop operating simply because they’d ended up in court with a conviction and Fleet Street newspapers, knowing that, nevertheless were still using them.”