Hackgate: In praise of… The Guardian

Amidst all sorts of sonorous warnings about politicians taking over, the shortcomings of self regulation, as Toby Harnden notes, if it was British journalism that took its country (repeatedly) down into the gutter, it was British journalism that has also shown the way out:

….most notably Nick Davies and his team at the Guardian, who brought Murdoch to his knees last week. The tipping point came when the Guardian revealed that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked and the Telegraph reported that the families of war dead were also targeted. Seems to me like some pretty good self-regulation there.

It’s a point not quite acknowledged by Guido, but who nonetheless puts the case against statutory regulation succinctly and well:

Momentum is building for press regulation, politicians of all parties are keen to tame the feral press. Public opinion is shifting towards them. This would be a mistake. The rich and the powerful in this country would like nothing better than to have a craven and beholden press. In many countries this is exactly what they have and ordinary people are worse off for it. Privacy laws are a trojan horse for censorship.

Quite so. Although the rich and powerful in this case would appear to include one of those who represented themselves as guardians of such freedoms. As we noted on Thursday, what the News of the World faced in its collapse of public confidence (and revenue) was unprecedented.

We also noted that it’s collapse would not be the end of this affair, by any means.

Its hacks find themselves suddenly (and strangely for them at least) out of touch with public opinion, as well as out of a job. And for good reason. Too many have too long assumed that the only people capable of acting beneath contempt were politicians. And that good journalists cannot break the law.

That turned out to be a dangerous and costly illusion. The assumption that the only way to get at the truth is to serially and seriously breach the privacy of whichever prey is on the menu that day is belied by the critical damage wrought by The Guardian on a vast and wealthy multinational institution that almost everyone, politicians, unions, and other newspaper proprietors had feared to act against.

And how did Nick Davies do it? Less by ‘thinking’ his way into the story (never mind ‘hacking’) but by accumulating and sifting facts by hard work and determination, and by never accepting the story was over even when the cops, politicians, other journalists and even Mr Murdoch insisted it was.

Several aspects of this story have resonance from the old man of the Manchester Guardian’s handbook:

As organisation grows personality may tend to disappear. It is much to control one newspaper well; it is perhaps beyond the reach of any man, or any body of men, to control half a dozen with equal success. It is possible to exaggerate the danger, for the public is not undiscerning. It recognises the authentic voices of conscience and conviction when it finds them, and it has a shrewd intuition of what to accept and what to discount. [Emphasis added]


At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred. “Propaganda”, so called, by this means is hateful. The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard.

In the midst of the storm, Nick Davies’ quietly insistent focus on the story in hand is the one worth continuing to pay close attention to… Much of the rest is mere ‘comment’…

Perhaps it is time for other journalistic institutions to reset their clocks, dump some of their more self-corroding conceits and follow?

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  • pippakin

    Old fashioned, untrendy, hard slog journalism at its very best, well done the Guardian, even if they are a bunch of champagne socialists…

  • Nice piece, Mick Fealty: as we expect of you.

    Which is, in a way the issue: what do we expect of our journos, as they filter information to us? Perhaps only in retrospect can their judgments be evaluated — which was happening over the history of the NotW this weekend.

    But … regulation? Obviously the PCC is a spent force (though “force” is too, too flattering a term). It is easy to put up OfCom or the Advertising Standards Authority as parallels — except that doesn’t quite work for me. Once the froth and fume has subsided, it’s going to be the PCC in another guise — though with strengthened clout. I’m wondering whether the sanction should be similar to that in competitive sport (and, indeed, here on Slugger) — the red card and an automatic time-limited ban. So the PCC-successor is no longer dominated by media and editorial types, but has a “jury” of a few good “ordinary” folk — examples drawn from that “Big Society”, perhaps. It has the power to order a suspension of publication — even one day/one issue would be enough for most periodicals to calculate the percentages.

    Meanwhile, out in the world of yer reel actualitay, as they say in Islington, I was taken by this raw assertion:

    Inside the Cabinet, the shadow of Murdoch has caused a further split between two factions – one, led by Nick Clegg and Steve Hilton, Cameron’s chief aide, who want to limit the influence of Murdoch over the government, and a second pro-News International faction led by chancellor George Osborne.
    It was Osborne who was responsible for persuading Cameron to hire Andy Coulson in the first place, and who invited News International executives to his 40th birthday party at the grace-and-favour country residence, Dorneywood.

    [My emphasis.]

    Somehow, that reminds me of my Norfolk childhood, when there was an agricultural essential known as the “honey cart”.

  • Jack2

    Great journalism.

  • andnowwhat

    Hard to think that this man believes he is in the same profession as Guardian Journalists…

  • andnowwhat

    So now it seems that a royal protection officer stole and sold an officially stamped royal phonebook. Seems this was known by the investigators 4 years ago.

  • I dont think its good enough to say that the tabloid journalism of the NOTW (and others) is a different form of Journalism from the “broadsheet” Journalism of the Guardian (and others).
    Its not good enough to say that the entire culture of tabloid journalism has brought “journalism” to its knees but hooray for one man on one serious newspaper who has restored the balance.
    Nor should any journalist, Journalism itself or any form of Journalism be depicted (least of all by themselves) as Victims.
    Because they arent Victims.
    The Guardian is to be congratulated. But “serious” journalism has facilitated “tabloid” excess by trying to open up a fault line between the two. The Independent and the Guardian avoid the celebrity culture and the “royal” stories. But the knock on effect is that vegetarian, cycle riding cliches like myself can buy a newspaper without holding our nose.

    The notion that Journalism can avoid “regulation” because “Journalism” is the hero that brought us this story is frankly silly. And self-serving.
    A bit like an appeal for clemency for a man who has just murdered his parents. “Members of the Jury…this man is now an orphan”.

  • oracle

    Three cheers for the Guardian my ass…..

    It was not the Guardian that brought down the News of the World or knocked it off its perch, hell for that matter it didn’t even rattle its cage in any way shape or form or at any time. To try and claim so is embarrassing and only shows just how little some people know about the whole hacking scandal.

    Guardian reporters were hacking also although it was not office or management sanctioned and was the exception and not the norm at the Guardian it happened none the less.
    I wish the readers of Slugger would grasp the concept that they were all at it…. Every single media outlet had some rodent somewhere short-cutting for a byline or a 30sec package before the adverts many of their colleagues knew and either did nothing and turned a blind eye or made inquiries as to how they could do it if required at a later date.

    None of the media went after the “Hack-Gate” because they’d be going after themselves, it was John Prescott Sienna Miller Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway that kept pushing and enquiring not the Guardian or any other Johnny come lately bull-shitter claiming the laurels of protectorate of media morality.

    There are journalists in Ireland and some in Northern Ireland who have been destroying hard-drives ever since the News International started agreeing pay-outs, phones dumped SIM cards burned and written notes shredded.

    Why…. Because they’ve been sending loaded emails that when opened access who you emailed when you emailed and what you emailed. Also who emailed you and what they were saying… personal or business it mattered not.
    They also use email tracker which lets them know if you are sent an email from them exactly what time you opened it and who and when you forwarded it to.

    All 3rd generation phones are a security joke (I phone, blackberry, new Nokias ) are so open it’s untrue, they knew this information or were taught this information but the disgusting thing is they used this information.

    This debacle has more filth to be cleaned up but we shouldn’t allow those who made the filth and wallowed in it to sweep it under the carpet, the public should be responsible for the level of cleanliness required not sewer rats.

  • The curious new allegation about a member of the “Royal Protection Squad” or similar taking a backhander….has been jumped all over by Scotland Yard claiming that this leak is designed to de-rail the investigation.
    Now thats an interesting form of words.
    Could a person potentially facing a charge of say murder, leak enough defamatory information about himself/herself to actually render a fair trial impossible?

    There is a very peculiar game going on here.
    Goodman and Mulcaire were sacrificial lambs a few years ago.
    But it wasnt enough.
    A few more unlucky criminal folks will be offered up this time.
    But most will get away with it and retire to their Tuscan villas.

  • Alias

    “The notion that Journalism can avoid “regulation” because “Journalism” is the hero that brought us this story is frankly silly. And self-serving.”

    It’s more like claiming that schools don’t need rules or management because one child told its parents about the bad behaviour of another child…

    In reality, all of the regulatory framework was tested and all of it failed. It was the British public’s maudlin sentimentality about childern that made it impossible for the system to continue to ignore the problem. Ironically, that sentimentality was in large measure socially engineered by the British print media. Not that the great unwashed are the heroes here – they, after all, allowed the media to engineer their love of trivia and gossip about the private lives of the famous (and infamous) in order to profit by supplying the market demand the media created by selling the great unwashed such information.

    The PCC turned a blind eye to the slush fund used by the NOTW’s royal reporter to fund private investigators, as did the NOTW’s editor – as did the management who provided the slush fund. That was all parties in self-regulation ignoring the rotton system they prescided over in order to arrive at their pre-determined conclusion that the system was fine bar the odd rotten apple that was promptly plucked from it.

    Sadly for Ireland, the decision by Conor Cruise O’Brien to allow the British media to unfettered access to the Irish market in order to culturally harmonise the two societies (i.e. to replace Irish culture with British culture) has also allowed it to socially engineer the same grubby love of trivia and celebrity in this society as it engineered in GB. But while the excesses of that rotten system can be uncovered in GB, they remain hidden here.

  • andnowwhat

    Just out now.An NOTW e-mail reveals that Goodman asked Coulson for the money to buy the royal “green book”.

  • pippakin

    There is more to come out and if some of the rumours are to be believed more damage to be inflicted on News International or News Corp. But, I believe in freedom of the press and freedom of speech, I would hate to think that this debacle could end in the loss of either or both. A tame press would be a useless press, only think how happy the likes of certain politicians and the heads of certain sports bodies would be. Its important to keep perspective. The press must not be tamed or curtailed they just need to be reminded of the boundaries and the cost of crossing those boundaries. To that end the humiliation and possible subjugation of NI is worthwhile.

  • andnowwhat

    breaking about Gordon Brown’s phone being tapped including confidential medical information about his child having CF.

    The Times and the Sun are implicated.

  • pippakin


    I know I subscribe to Guido Fawkes, but its unconfirmed which is why I didn’t name it, exciting times we live in…

  • Alias

    Pippakin, chirping songbird, it’s a non sequitur to claim that improved regulation restricts the freedom of the press. The press is not free to engage in illegal activity. The improved regulation is required to ensure that scale of the illeegality that they have engaged in cannot be repeated.

  • Mission impossible:

    ¶ Exhibit the first:

    Back in October 2005 the NotW “burned” George Osborne with a front page which involved a self-confessed BDSM “madame”, Ms Natalie Rowe, and cocaine. [And, for the record, the Sunday Mirror also ran a copycat “spoiler.]

    The editor of the NotW was Andy Coulson.

    ¶ Exhibit the second:

    Three years later, in the fall-out of the Oleg Deripaska yachting trip, the NotW repeated the story, with added spice. This time Ms Rowe also promised a book which would name two of Cameron’s “top team” and two former Tory ministers. By then the editor was Colin Myler, and Coulson was the Tory’s Director of Communications.

    We now know that Osborne had nominated Coulson to Cameron. So no hard feelings there, then.

    ¶ Non-exhibit the third:

    There remains the mystery of the alleged photographs of Osborne: one in “black-up” — supposedly somewhere in an editor’s safe —, the other in bra, knickers and suspenders. [That last one seems to have another life as the basis for Ian McEwen’s Amsterdam.] Oh, and Ms Rowe’s hypothetical sex-tape. Those were the allegations that brought down Derek Draper and McBride.

    ¶ Exhibit the fourth:

    The Wapping machine used both money and muscle. In the case of acquiring documents, money was no object. Equally, there were threats, as in: Mr Watson was reportedly threatened by NI in the early stages of the phone-hacking dispute. He was said to have been told by someone from the company: ‘Rebekah Brooks will pursue you for the rest of your life. She will never forgive you for this.’

    ¶ Exhibit the fifth:

    As Peter Oborne put it: It may well be dangerous for David Cameron to ditch Mrs Brooks. She may have acquired a great deal of information about him and the senior members of his cabinet, both at those quiet Chipping Norton dinners and quite possibly through other, nefarious means.

    Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves joining up the dots.

  • Well the Metropolitan Police seemed to have joined a few dots today with that rather odd reference to News International trying to scupper the very investigation that they are er……..supporting.
    But why did no alarm bells ring.
    Why is a Private Investigator on a retainer that is a multiple of the salary of the vast majority of journalists?
    Why do newspapers have a stable of Private Investigators.
    Surely those of us who watch any crime drama involving private detectives know that they are dodgy. (the excellent New Tricks tonight).
    Why did jailed Clive Goodman find work as a freelance on the Daily Star after his release?
    Im all for re-habilitation of criminals but I never thought the British tabloid press was a big fan…….before journalists got locked up.
    Presumably the tabloid press are not all that concerned about journalistic excess.

    With luck, the surviving tabloids will be spoiled for choice when hiring freelancers over the next few years.

  • Mick Fealty

    Now you are saying there is a distinction between tabloid and broadsheet Fitzy?

    Not that it makes any odds. The point of praising the Guardian is straightforward enough. It dared to investigate, where others chose not to.

    That goes for the Daily Telegraph and the Independent as much as for the Mail.

    We also know from Davies own work that the Observer was guilty of hacking or phreaking too. But the point of the praise in the blog above is the work itself.

  • Alias

    The crux point about self–regulation of the press is that it relies too heavily on the supposed integrity of editors (7 of whom are PCC board members) to ensure compliance with its Code of Practice (which is itself entirely a construct of the Editors’ Code Committee).

    What is clear from Goodman’s activity at the NOTW and from the PCC’s investigation of it is that integrity is defined in practice under self-regulation as the ability to create plasible deniability about illegal activities that you corporately profit from but supposedly do not condone and, indeed, are careful to be seen to tokenly discourage.

    The NOTW paid substanial sums of money to the private investigator corporately when it could be claimed that it was to fund legitimate investigation but was very careful to pay him outside of corporate channels (in cash from a slush fund by a reporter) when it came to funding that investigator’s illegitimate investigation. That system was too expedient to be an oversight.

    In addition, the PCC did not question either the editor of the NOTW or its royal reporter, Clive Goodman, about that system of paying for information from the same source by traceable means and by untraceable cash. It did not suspect that such a system was put in place to allow the editor and his paper to deny corporate involvement, blaming the failure instead, if exposed, on a ‘bad apple’ rather than as being the result of and endemic and systemic failure of ethics and the supposed Code of Practice.

    So there was a failure of integrity and not a failure of vigilance. Therefore, vigilance cannot be dependent upon integrity when the integrity of jouranlists is demonstrably a fictious invention. Hence the need to impose regulation on the systemically corrupt.

  • Alias

    One last point: it is the case that the PCC were either incompetent or complicit. And either way, the system of self-regulation failed. If the former, then you could claim that the board could be replaced with another 7 leading editors who could exercise greater vigilance but the problem there is that one leading editor is unlikely to be any greater ability than another leading editor so relying on greater competence is not a valid solution. If the latter, the same argument applies in that one leading editor is unlikely to be less corrupt and thereby complicit in corruption than another.

  • Fitzy????
    No Mr Fealty Im not making a distinction between tabloid journalist and broadsheet journalist.
    So called “serious journalists” like to indulge in the fantasy that they are different.