Last Friday the Media Standards Trust backed calls for a judicial inquiry into the phone hacking allegations at the News of the World. We did this for three – all rather practical – reasons:
1. Only a judicial inquiry, which would have the power to subpoena witnesses and order the release of police files, is likely to expose the truth about the allegations
The PCC has already conducted two ‘investigations’ into phone hacking allegations – one in 2007 and another in 2009. These essentially amounted to a polite exchange of letters with a small number of interested parties (not including Andy Coulson). Neither turned up anything new. Indeed, in its conclusions, rather than criticise the News of the World, the PCC went so far as to remind The Guardian of its obligations not to ‘to publish distorted or misleading information’ and claimed that ‘the Guardian’s stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given’.
Throughout 2009, the CMS Select Committee conducted a lengthy and detailed inquiry into ‘Press Standards, privacy and libel’, and from July focused considerable attention on The Guardian’s allegations. Yet they were frustrated by the ‘collective amnesia’ of News International and obfuscation from the Metropolitan Police. The Committee, despite its valiant efforts, did not have the resources, the remit or the powers (e.g. of subpoena) to uncover what really happened at the News of the World.
Last summer the Media Standards Trust called for the press to set up its own independent inquiry, after The Guardian published new evidence about phone hacking (see ‘This calls for an inquiry – but not by the PCC’, Media Guardian, July 13, 2009). We proposed newspapers should ‘appoint a genuinely independent figure with wide-ranging powers to conduct a lengthy and detailed investigation’. This could not only have boosted public confidence in the responsibility of the press, but also prevented a more official investigation that could potentially threaten press freedom. Our call was not taken up.
2. Without a judicial inquiry there is no guarantee the files will be opened
The police have files detailing thousands of examples of phone hacking and other invasions of privacy. We now understand this includes evidence that the then Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, had her phone hacked at least 28 times. Other ex-Ministers have reason to believe their phones were also hacked.
News International has, according to the Guardian and the New York Times, already paid a substantial amount of money to prevent these files being released (a reported £700,000 to Gordon Taylor, and £1m to Max Clifford). It is also said to have paid Mulcaire and Goodman to keep quiet. Why would any company pay so much money to keep files hidden unless they revealed something they thought might be highly damaging?
Others are now stepping forward to make legal challenges and try to force disclosure of the files.
If there was a judicial inquiry that released the files then we could all judge the veracity of the claims against the News of the World for ourselves, and see how pervasive the phone hacking culture was across the news industry.
3. A judicial inquiry could prevent this being driven into a political cul-de-sac
Allegations of phone hacking on an industrial scale have made a lot of politicians understandably outraged. Unfortunately this is almost entirely on one side of the House. Even more unfortunately much of the attention has become focused on a single figure – No. 10’s Head of Communications, Andy Coulson.
Though this is entirely understandable, given Coulson was editor of News of the World during some of the period of alleged hacking, and given he has stated categorically that he had no knowledge of any hacking while he was in charge, it risks diverting the story into a political cul-de-sac. Were Coulson to resign some might see that as the end of the matter (see also Kevin Marsh’s piece ‘News of the World and the scalp hunt‘).
Yet the real story is about whether there was (is?) an ingrained culture of phone hacking and illegal intrusion at one of Britain’s most powerful media organisations. An organisation that could soon become even more powerful if News Corp is allowed to fully acquire Sky.
A judicial inquiry could renew the focus on the allegations, and stop the story being hijacked by high politics.
This story has now been stuttering along for over three years. As long as information seeps out it will continue to trundle along, with continued allegations and counter allegations, and a lingering sense of corruption.
Start an inquiry, expose the files, and shine some sunlight on News of the World and the Metropolitan police, and we can begin to draw a line under this whole affair.