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Reflections on the phone hacking scandal
07/07/2011 10:55:00

I am at home today trying to recover from manflu, which I have been suffering from since Sunday, and reflecting on a momentous week at Westminster when the phone hacking scandal went from slow-burning Westminster village story to front-page news.

The law says all phone hacking by journalists is illegal. I suspect that in the court of public opinion, hacking the phones of politicians, public officials and celebrities to uncover wrongdoing or hypocrisy may not be viewed as a very serious offence. What has transformed this story is the news that the police have reason to believe that people working on behalf of The News of the World hacked the phones of Milly Dowler, the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman and the families of some of the 7/7 bombing victims and British servicemen killed in Afghanistan. If true, I can find no better words to describe how I feel than those of Mark Lewis, a lawyer acting for the Dowler family, who said:

"It is distress heaped upon tragedy to learn the News of the World have no humanity at such a terrible time. The fact that they were prepared to act in such a heinous way that could have jeopardised the police investigation and gave them [the Dowler family] false hope is despicable".

Questions are bound to be asked about the Prime Minister's decision to hire the former editor of The News of the World, Andy Coulson, as his director of communications and about his friendship with another former editor of The News of the World and now chief executive of News International, Rebecca Brooks. The same questions could equally be asked of Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, who appointed Tom Baldwin, a former News International employee whose journalistic practices are hardly a model for others to follow, as his director of strategy. One of the first things Mr Baldwin did in his new job was toadvise Mr Miliband and his colleagues not to attack News International.

But it is hardly a surprise that the leaders of our political parties seek to build bridges with those who own our newspapers. What matters is that, confronted with the evidence that is now before us, they are seen to act unambiguously in the public interest.

The Prime Minister made a good start yesterday when he said that there would be a public inquiry or inquiries. The choice of person to lead this inquiry and the terms of reference are very important.

We need to get to the bottom of how widespread phone hacking was and who authorised or knew about it. To date, all the stories have been about The News of the World but plenty of former journalists have suggested that this practice was used by a number of newspapers, not just those owned by Rupert Murdoch.

We need to find out why all of this didn't come to light in the initial police investigation. Pretty much all of the evidence that has led the news over the last few days has been in police hands for years. The police were very thorough in their investigation of the cash for honours allegations - some in the Labour Party would probably argue that they went too far, but it was important that they were seen to treat such allegations with the utmost thoroughness. Why was the same thoroughness not shown with regard to these allegations?

We also need to look into the allegations of police officers being paid by journalists. How widespread was this practice, who authorised it and who knew about it?

And we need to look at the current system of self-regulation. The Press Complaints Commission itself has admitted that the status quo cannot continue. A free press is an integral part of our democracy but we must have a system that makes sure that this kind of wrongdoing never happens again.

Even if parts of the inquiry can't proceed until the current criminal invesitgations are complete, I hope we will get some clarity on the nature of the inquiry or inquiries fairly quickly.

Finally there is the issue of News Corporation's proposed purchase of the 61% of British Sky Broadcasting which it does not currently own. I appreciate that in making this decision Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity and that this limits the Government's room for manoevure but nevertheless I think there is a very strong case for delay until we have established the facts about what has happened.

This scandal is an important test for the Prime Minster. He made a good start yesterday and he needs to follow that through.

Comment on this blog


Readers' Comments

On 07/07/2011 13:53:00 Paul Ogier wrote:
RE: BSkyB and the Secretary of State. Today Parliament is debating and passing emergency legislation instigated by the Secretary of State for the Home Office to deal with police bail difficulties - all in one day. Maybe the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport could present a 'one-day' bill to suspend the BSkyB bid by News Corporation. It seems to me there would cross-party support and parliamentarians could demonstrate not only nimbleness but being in touch with electors.
On 07/07/2011 20:49:00 Martin Rosen wrote:
That's an excellent response, Gavin.

You end by saying "I think there is a very strong case for delay [of the decision on Murdoch's share acquisition] until we have established the facts about what has happened."

I hope you will go further on this by clearly notifying the Government that you are firmly opposed to any premature decision, and that you will speak in Parliament against such a premature decision and (if necessary) vote against it in Parliament.

On 11/07/2011 14:15:00 Paul Ogier wrote:
Re. Tom Baldwin who was some years ago a Times journalist. Presumably you are wanting people to consider the issues about Lord Ashcroft and this particular Times journalist. When will you be asking the current Secretary of State for Education about his public comments as a Times journalist about his view and advice to the Conservative Party about severing their links with Lord Ashcroft -comments which despite the Secretary of State's erudition were far from complimentary.
On 13/07/2011 18:56:00 David Bernstein wrote:
A fair and even-handed critique somewhat overtaken by events today (13 July) but that's no surprise in this fast-moving saga. Who knows what Bastille Day will bring!
On 13/07/2011 19:11:00 Barbara Randall wrote:
Very well summed up, Gavin, and very fair too.

I hope the manflu has gone away by now!

On 14/07/2011 00:30:00 Gillian de Veras wrote:
Gavin, thanks for stating so clearly what we all feel. It's very depressing indeed to discover, in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal, that sections of our press and some of our police seem not to know the meaning of the words honesty and integrity. They must be made to realise, by the end of the enquiry process, that if everyone lies, then life becomes impossible, not only for us poor suckers, but for the liars who are on the take as well.



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