A bad free press is better than the alternative
The overblown media furore about alleged phone-hacking by News of the World reporters reveals the danger of ill-judged moral crusades.
Perhaps I ought to start, as the self-appointed moral guardians of the media demand these days, with one of those declarations of interest. I have been privileged to write many articles for The Times (London) over the past decade, for which I have been paid by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, publisher of that newspaper. This is called selling your labour power, not your soul. However, I have no personal interest in defending the corporate reputation of NI – and in particular, no interest in defending another Murdoch paper, the News of the World. From its obsession with celebrity gossip to its shrill crusades on issues such as child sex murders, it is fair to say that the NoTW is not the first paper to which I turn for news of the world.
But from whichever side you look at it, the unavoidable truth is that the Guardian’s campaign, accusing the News of the World of tapping the phones of ‘thousands’ of public figures and celebrities, has been a badly misjudged pathetic mess. It shows what can happen when scandal-mongering and mutual dirt-flinging become not the preserve of Sunday tabloids, but the stuff of serious public debate. Not only has the Guardian damaged the cause of investigative reporting by failing to provide the facts to back up its allegations. Worse, the supposed champion of liberal journalism has given the green light to those demanding more state regulation of a free press.
The Guardian claimed that News of World reporters had colluded with private investigators to tap into the phones of thousands of public figures, from former deputy prime minister John Prescott to Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Nigella Lawson. Moreover, it reported that the ‘Murdoch papers’ had paid out £1million to ‘gag victims’. The revelations made big headlines everywhere last week. There was much talk of the heavy consequences this would have for the NoTW, for various NI executives, and for Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who is now Conservative leader David Cameron’s press supremo.
After a week of confused and confusing allegations and counter-allegations, the only thing that seems clear is that, whatever went on at the NoTW, the Guardian is not breaking a big new scandal, and cannot make its central allegations stand up.
First of all, much of its story turns out to be rehashed old news. More than two years ago Clive Goodman, the NoTW’s former royal reporter, and Glen Mulcaire, a private investigator, were sent to jail for hacking into mobile phone voicemail messages (it would apparently take secret-service technology to tap into actual phone calls) including those of royal aides. Mulcaire also admitted tapping into messages sent to the celeb PR fixer Max Clifford, the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes and the model Elle Mcpherson, as well as a football agent and Gordon Taylor, chief of the Professional Footballers’ Association. The scandal forced Coulson to resign as editor of the NoTW, although there was no evidence that he had any knowledge of these crimes.
These well-known facts from a 2007 trial into earlier offences turned out to form the only hard evidence of phone message hacking in the Guardian’s ‘exclusive’ revelations last week. Their one fresh angle was that, after the trial, Gordon Taylor had sued News International over having his messages hacked into and the corporation had paid out around £700,000 in a settlement that included a confidentiality clause, or ‘gag’. This, the Guardian excitedly implied, was the clue to a widespread cover-up, and ‘thousands’ of other public figures’ phones had actually been hacked into.
But as everybody waited breathlessly for the Guardian to publish further details, it became clear that there were none. John Yates, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, announced that he had reviewed the Goodman case and there was no new evidence to justify reopening the inquiry. Former Met assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, who headed the original police inquiry, recalled that far from ‘thousands’ of phones having their messages hacked into by Mulcaire, it had been ‘a handful’. There might have been several hundred names on the private detective’s ‘wish list’ for hacking, but he did not even have phone numbers for most of them.
While former New Labour deputy John Prescott was shouting to the media about the disgraceful way his privacy had been violated, it turned out there was no evidence that his phone messages had ever been hacked into (although apparently they could have been, since our security-conscious deputy premier did not have an effective pin code on his mobile). Meanwhile we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of publicity-hungry Z-list celebrities claiming they ‘just knew’ they had been hacked, although nobody was suggesting they had been.
News International has strongly refuted the Guardian’s allegations and denied its journalists and executives were involved in any hacking or cover-up. Critics may claim that ‘somebody must have known something’. But one thing for sure is that the evidence they have provided – the basis for any serious piece of investigative journalism – is at best outdated or unimpressive, and at worse non-existent.
How did Britain’s leading liberal newspaper come to stake its reputation on such a sorry excuse for an investigation? It reflects the way that the desperate search for scandal has become a central obsession of politics and the media in recent years, often at the expense of far more important arguments and issues. Within that context, several overlapping factors appear to have been at work in bringing this debacle about.
There is the Guardian’s self-righteous desire to present itself as the champion of the moral high ground, passing judgement on all below – a position the paper has fancied itself in since it launched the crusade against Tory sleaze in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. No doubt the Guardian was keen to reclaim the sleaze-buster crown usurped by the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about MPs’ expenses. And it is always keen to dish the dirt, real or imagined, on Rupert Murdoch, the fantasy bogeyman whom the Guardian’s top columnist seriously argues is effectively responsible for everything that has gone wrong in British politics over the past 20 years. The sanctimonious tone of the paper’s coverage was captured by one article headlined ‘I make that 3-1 to the Guardian so far’ – after three bodies said they would look into the allegations and the police declined – as if the issues of privacy and the press really were all about the Guardian slaying the dragon.
Then there is the eagerness of New Labour to use the Guardian story as a stick to beat Cameron’s Conservatives over his close association with former NoTW editor Coulson – seized upon as a rare chance for Gordon Brown’s government to pose as Mr Clean. And there is the wider enthusiasm of MPs and the political establishment to take any chance to hit back at the ‘corrupt’ media, which they see as having unfairly humiliated them in the expenses exposes.
Put all that together and you have a collection of interests keen to see a major scandal and pretty blind to the relative lack of evidence. Worse yet, it appears not to have occurred to some of the journalists involved in the campaign that the only outcome, as with other recent scandals, would be demands for new rules and laws, less self-regulation and more formal external control of the media. This seemed to dawn on the Guardian late last week, when it ran a defensive editorial about how it favoured a free press and self-regulation and did not support a privacy law. Meanwhile, its top civil liberties columnists were calling for precisely such a censorious new privacy law and implicitly suggesting the NoTW should be investigated under the notorious RIP Act, while also championing the bureaucratic regulator Ofcom as a democratic policeman of the press, ignoring the small matter of the existing laws which, as Brendan O’Neill argues elsewhere on spiked, already make the state by far the most powerful threat to our privacy (see Rip up the RIP Act).
As journalists on the left, we may not worry too much about what happens to the Conservatives’ press chief as a result of this mess. But we should be very clear about some far bigger issues at stake here.
Journalists always use underhand and illicit methods to obtain information. This is necessary because they are trying to uncover things that others do not want them – or us the readers and viewers – to know. A few years ago, the Information Commissioner’s report on the media’s use of private detectives – which the Guardian rather sneakily tried to lump in with the Goodman case as evidence against the News of the World – found that many major media outlets deployed such dubious methods, including the Guardian’s sister paper, the Observer. The Guardian itself has been accused of some underhand dirt-digging in its campaign against sleaze. Whether these methods are morally justified or not depends, as others have pointed out, on whether they serve the public interest. Hence the police rightly declined to investigate the leaking of MPs’ expenses, since this has clearly served the public interest. But it is often hard to know that until afterwards, when you see what you have got. And in any case, what is in the ‘public interest’ should ultimately be judged by the public, not by unaccountable bodies.
The News of the World may be a gossip-obsessed rag that falls some way short of the lofty standards aspired to by the likes of the Guardian. But in the end, I am with Karl Marx, who argued that a ‘bad’ free press is always better than a ‘good’ controlled press. So I would rather the news was reported by the News of the World than by Ofcom or the courts.
Mick Hume is editor at large of spiked.