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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty