This seems like news of another world entirely

Is reheating an old scandal about a Tory spindoctor and phone tapping at the News of the World really the best the Opposition can offer?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Free Speech

Have you had your phone tapped by journalists or detectives operating on behalf of the News of the World newspaper? If not, it would seem you are a nobody. To judge by the list of has-been Labour politicians and celebrities queuing up to claim that they ‘just know’ their voicemail box has been tampered with, it seems that getting your name on the list of alleged targets has become the hottest media ticket in town, proof somehow of your (self-) importance.

Never mind that the Metropolitan Police insist that they only have hard evidence of perhaps a dozen phones having their messages (not calls) successfully tapped. One Labour ex-minister has declared that anybody who has ever seen their name in the papers should now join the circus, urging ‘any politician, actor, actress, celebrity, footballer or anyone else who has been of interest to the media to write to the Met and ask them what they have got, because for all they know they could have been tapped’. Indeed. ‘For all they know’, of course, they might also be on an al-Qaeda death list.

Perhaps the only humane response to the trauma that these allegations appear to be causing is to set up a support group for survivors of the horror of having a tabloid discover how boring your mobile messages really are.

What in the News of the World is going on when a three-year-old story about what somebody says somebody else did or did not know about what somebody else said on the phone somehow becomes the biggest story in British politics? It is a sorry saga that reveals little we did not know about the world of tabloid journalism, but rather a lot about the self-righteous, self-serving elitism and authoritarianism of the supposedly liberal wing of the British media and political class.

Before we go much further I suppose it is time to make another of those ‘declarations of interest’ that the pious press corps seems so keen on these days. For more than a decade I have been privileged to write many articles for The Times (London), which is owned, like the NotW, by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. So yes, I have taken what some would like to call ‘the Murdoch shilling’. That has never made any difference to my political views. As a confessed libertarian Marxist propagandist I carry no brief for Mr Murdoch’s business empire (in any case he needs no help from the likes of me); neither am I a big fan of the News of the World’s style of journalism, having often criticised for example its apparent obsession with paedophile-hunting; and nor do I much care what becomes of Andy Coulson, the former NotW editor turned Tory spindoctor for prime minister David Cameron, who has become the prime target of the current campaign.

What I do care fervently about, however, is the freedom of the press. As was pointed out on spiked the last time this scandal came around last year, my old friend Karl Marx was surely right to suggest that a ‘bad’ free press is better than the alternative – a ‘good’ controlled press. Freedom of the media, with all its faults, provides the best chance we have of getting at the truth.

That is why by far the biggest scandal in this phone-tapping affair is the demand from allegedly liberal observers and campaigners for the police and the courts to take a harder line in controlling and censoring the media and investigative journalism. That poses potentially a greater threat to our liberties than anything done by seedy detectives for a Sunday paper.

Nothing new to report

This saga has been dragging on for several years, so the first question to be asked is why is it back in the news now? The answer has less to do with any damning new evidence against Coulson and more to do with the urgent agendas of those out to get him and the NotW. The formally liberal press on both sides of the Atlantic – primarily the Guardian here and the New York Times over there – hope to use the scandal as a stick to poke at their demon Murdoch. And desperate Labour politicians have joined the got-up crusade against Coulson in the hope of finally landing a blow – however feeble – against his boss, prime minister Cameron.

A quick resumé of the story so far confirms that there is little new in the latest round of ‘exposés’. In 2007, News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were both jailed for conspiracy to access phone messages, including those of royal aides. Mulcaire also admitted tapping into the messages sent to celeb PR fixer Max Clifford, Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes and the model Elle Macpherson, as well as a football agent and Gordon Taylor, chief of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the English players’ union. Coulson, then the NotW editor, took responsibility and resigned, yet insisted that he had no knowledge of, or involvement in, the attempted phone tapping.

Last year, the Guardian sought to reheat the scandal and implicate Coulson, by now the Conservative Party’s main media spinner. The only new information its ‘exclusive’ investigation could dig up, however, was that, after the 2007 trial, Gordon Taylor had sued News International and the corporation had paid out around £700,000 in a settlement that included a confidentiality clause, or as the Guardian had it, ‘gag’. The paper excitedly claimed that this was the clue to a widespread cover-up, and that ‘thousands’ of other public figures’ phones had been hacked into. Yet when it failed to provide any more hard facts to support its wild claims, the police announced that there was no new evidence to justify reopening the inquiry, and the former senior officer who had led the initial inquiry recalled that, far from ‘thousands’ of phones having their messages tapped, it had been a ‘handful’. True, Mulcaire had several hundred names on a ‘wish list’ for hacking, but the private investigator did not even have the phone numbers for most of them. It was an embarrassing episode for the Guardian, so obsessed by its anti-Murdoch agenda that it had got involved in the sort of low scandal-mongering and mud-slinging for which it likes to sneer at others.

Now, however, the same old story is somehow back on top of the news agenda, with the Guardian once more hyping it for all it is worth, Labour politicians raising it urgently in parliament and the police promising to look at the evidence again. What has changed? Well, er, the New York Times magazine has published a long article on this British tabloid affair – a strange diversion for the high-minded paper of American liberalism, which one somehow suspects may not be entirely unconnected to its growing concerns about the commercial threat posed by the now Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal.

The NYT article has prompted renewed screaming about damning new evidence. But amidst its several thousand words, the only real new element was a couple of supposed quotes from anonymous former NotW staff claiming that Coulson knew about the tapping at the paper, which he has always denied. It has since become known that one of these alleged whistleblowers was Sean Hoare, a journalist who was sacked by the News of the World because of his heavy use of drugs and drink. Such an interested party might not in other circumstances be accepted as an entirely reliable or objective witness in a trial involving the theft of a bicycle, never mind be put forward as single-handed ‘proof’ of a national media and political scandal.

Many of course will conclude that there is no smoke without fire, especially where the tabloid press are concerned, and somebody in high places must have known something about what was going on. Be that as it may, the facts remain that this is essentially a recycling of the same old story and there is as yet no hard evidence to implicate Coulson – quite a remarkable non-appearance, given the effort that has been expended on unearthing it.

Get Coulson – and Cameron

Instead, the shrill noises promoting the scandal again are the sound of the liberal elite pursuing its own (largely undeclared, it might be noted) interests in trying to hurt Murdoch, and particularly Cameron, by discrediting Coulson.

Look at the clamour from Labour MPs, former government ministers and leadership candidates, pouring forward to claim that they have been violated and to demand that Cameron must sack Coulson. All but invisible in any real political debate since the election, Labour’s wheezing forces have seized on what they see as a rare opportunity to stagger up on to, if not exactly the high ground, at least a moral molehill.

Thus John Prescott is bellowing with his familiar eloquence about how his phone must have been tapped, despite the police repeatedly assuring him that it wasn’t (even though as deputy prime minister he apparently did not have a proper password on his voicemail). Another ex-cabinet minister, Tessa Jowell, has now come forward to declare that police did tell her she had been tapped 20-odd times up to May 2006. Why didn’t Jowell mention this at the time? Surely not because she was embroiled in an Anglo-Italian corruption scandal involving her husband and Silvio Berlusconi? And Tom Watson, another Labour ex-minister and one of Gordon Brown’s trusted bruisers, who was dragged into the ‘Smeargate’ scandal and made headlines with his expenses claims, has seen fit to denounce the coalition for bringing ‘shame’ on British democracy by its links to Coulson.

This is a pathetic excuse for opposition politics. Despite all that is happening around the Lib-Con coalition with the economic crisis and the planned public spending cuts, the best that Labour and its supporters in the liberal press can offer by way of opposition is sniping at an unelected press officer of whom few outside the elite media bubble will even have heard.

But this anti-Tory campaign is worse than useless, it is dangerous, based as it is on the politics of both elitism and authoritarianism. It is elitist because of the way it sneers at the popular journalism of the NotW and insists such underhand investigations are not in the ‘public interest’ – a standard which the great and the good always assume it is their right to define. If there is to be such a thing as the public interest, it should be decided by the public in an open atmosphere of publication and debate, not by judges, policemen or pundits.

And worst of all, it is authoritarian. After all, what is the real argument behind all the claims of collusion between the Met and the NotW, and demands for fresh inquiries and cross-examinations? It all rests on the assumption that the police and the courts are somehow too soft on sections of the media, and that we need a more forceful application of the draconian Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act to rein in rogue journalists. In other words, the stars of the liberal media firmament are effectively campaigning for more state censorship and control of what the press can and cannot say. (See Rip up the RIP Act, by Brendan O’Neill.)

Yet the truth is that the British media are already chained far too tightly by the law. On top of the RIP Act and the historic burden of England’s grisly libel laws, the judges have now effectively introduced an under-the-bench privacy law. The revelations about footballer Wayne Rooney’s private affairs are pretty much the exception in an age when footballers and public figures can expect to be granted injunctions preventing reports of their shenanigans, and super-injunctions preventing reporting of the injunction’s existence. Whether or not you are interested in reading tittle-tattle, the demand for more censorship of such investigations is the thin end of the wedge.

A dirty business, but…

The News of the World is certainly not the newspaper of choice for some of us. But it can justifiably claim to be one of the few papers now seriously committed to original investigative journalism, even if the subjects of its investigations may not always appear all that serious. Where others simply publish what they are handed by PR people or leakers, including the revelations about MPs’ expenses printed in the Daily Telegraph, the NotW also goes out to set up – and sometimes create – its own news stories. That is why many of today’s major talking points, such as the cricket betting scandal, stem from News of the World investigations. And why the cheap Sunday tabloid this week felt able to lecture the worthy New York Times for its poor standards of investigative journalism. ‘Touché!’, as they no doubt say at the NotW’s Wapping HQ.

Of course, after all the talk and allegations we still do not know all that really went on. But we can be sure of this: that investigative journalism is often a dirty business and of necessity can involve various sorts of trickery and deception. It is, after all, the job of these journalists to try to find out what others do not want them to know. If people break the law no doubt they must expect to face the consequences. But are those British liberals who would put even more controls on tabloid journalism, in the name of the ‘public interest’, comfortable to find themselves on the same side of the argument as the likes of Berlusconi?

It is a scandal that this is all that passes for political debate today. At a moment of social crisis, the obsession of the Westminster village with what somebody did or knew at the News of the World three or more years ago must sound to many people like news from another world altogether. Little wonder, perhaps, that opponents of the coalition government are having such trouble tapping into public sentiment.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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