Is it possible that we’ll never know the truth about phone hacking?

There is a chance that, despite The Guardian’s investigations, despite the civil claims, despite the police inquiry, and despite the various Commons committee inquiries, we – the public – may never find out what actually happened at the News of the World and elsewhere regarding phone hacking.

This might sound bizarre given how much heat there has been around the subject this year (in certain news outlets) but – following News International’s carefully constructed admission last week – could become increasingly likely.

Let me explain why.

1. Civil cases closed down

Last Sunday the News of the World published a page 2 apology, admitted some liability, and offered compensation to certain victims of phone hacking. This may, as Roy Greenslade and David Allen Green have written, successfully close down many of the civil cases against News International.

If, after being offered an apology and damages, the civil litigants choose to pursue their case they may ‘be declared to be vexatious litigants and even face accusations of abuse of process’ and/or ‘the claimant could end up paying an enormous amount in costs’ (Greenslade). If they settle then the case notes are likely to stay secret.

2. Police files not made public

There is now a police investigation of phone hacking in progress – an investigation that appears to be far more rigorous than any previous ones. This could well to lead to prosecutions against individuals from the News of the World. If those prosecutions go ahead then the police will present evidence they have uncovered from News of the World and elsewhere to support their case. But this evidence will be constrained to each specific case and each individual. There is no reason to believe it will lead to wider evidence of phone hacking being put in the public domain.

3. Commons Select Committees unable to expose evidence

Three Commons committees have looked into / are looking at phone hacking: the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Standards and Privileges Committee and Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee:

  • The Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into ‘Unauthorised tapping into or hacking of mobile communications’ focuses on the definition of offences related to phone hacking and the police response. Its remit does not extend to the activities of News International or other news outlets. It is also only taking written rather than oral evidence.
  • The Standards and Privileges Committee was essentially looking at whether hacking into an MPs phone represented contempt of Parliament and at what specific actions the House could take if it suspected MPs’ phones were being hacked
  • The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has done more than almost anyone bar The Guardian, certain lawyers, and a handful of MPs to uncover evidence of phone hacking – particularly in its extended 2009-2010 inquiry. But this, and the other committees only limited powers. They cannot, for example, require witnesses to appear. Rebekah Brooks famously refused to appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in 2010. Nor do they have the powers or resources to go out and do investigations themselves.

In each of these three cases, therefore, we could end up with little more evidence about the actual practices of phone hacking (and other methods of privacy intrusion) than we have now.

Nor should we forget that there are many powerful organisations who would like this whole affair to disappear:

  • News International – including: Murdoch senior and junior, Rebekah Brooks, and senior executives who gave evidence to Select Committees that may prove to have been inaccurate (including Les Hinton, Andy Coulson and Stuart Kuttner)
  • Other news outlets: News International, Associated Newspapers, Express Newspapers, Telegraph Media Group and Trinity Mirror have chosen not to investigate or, for the most part, report on phone hacking
  • The Press Complaints Commission: has done its best to ignore the scandal, criticising those who have come forward with new evidence and repeatedly finding – in its own investigations – no evidence of any wrongdoing beyond ‘one rogue reporter’
  • The Metropolitan Police: whose previous investigations have been shown to have been inadequate and who stand accused of an uncomfortably close relationship with the News of the World

News International has already conducted three internal investigations (according to News International). Perhaps unsurprisingly these did not find any further evidence of phone hacking beyond Clive Goodman. Unfortunately, News Corp has so far shown little inclination to make any of the details of these investigations public (see Brian Cathcart at Index and me on the Burton Copeland files).

For those who want the truth to come out, we therefore have to hope that:

  1. Certain news outlets choose to continue to dig away at this story. Had Nick Davies not managed to get hold of files on the Gordon Taylor case (which News International had paid a reported £700,000 to bury) phone hacking may never have come to wider public attention.
  2. There is a full public inquiry, with the powers to subpoena witnesses and evidence, whose job it is to uncover the truth and open up the evidence to public scrutiny