The brassnecked hypocrisy of these invaders of privacy
Yes, the News of the World has behaved badly, but for New Labour bigwigs to complain about being snooped on... you couldn’t make it up.
Was it worth it?
As Rupert Murdoch’s media company News Corp, and more specifically its Sunday tabloid the News of the World, is forced into a series of grovelling apologies for intercepting the voicemail messages of a whole range of politicians, shlebs and ‘their name rings a bell’ types, it’s very difficult to mount much of a defence.
This isn’t because the phone-hacking tactics were low. It’s because the ends were so trivial. Was it worth breaking the law to discover with whom actress Sienna Miller might be bumping uglies? Was it worth intruding upon ex-Sky Sport presenter Andy Gray’s privacy to discover his views on women in the workplace? Was it worth snooping on Sky Andrew, presumably to find out who he is?
Breaking the law because a journalist feels that the story is worth it is one thing. After all, there have been plenty of cases where corruption, and more often hypocrisy, has been exposed by a journalist using underhand, borderline illegal methods. And well they might. Someone with a dirty truth to hide is not simply going to reveal it upon being asked. It has to be wrested from them using all the tricks in the hack’s book of law infringement. But with the NotW phone-hacking scandal, one gets the sense that too many reporters weren’t seeking a particular truth; they were just hoping that any story might simply drop into their lap. It was born of laziness.
You might have thought that this whole, tedious saga of hacking and belated contrition was unedifying enough. If so, you probably hadn’t reckoned on that tribe of has-been opportunists who once marched under the banner of New Labour. Because for sheer brassnecked hypocrisy, there’s no beating the likes of former ministers Tessa Jowell, John Prescott and ex-prime minister Gordon Brown, to name just a few. These were vital cogs of a government, remember, which in terms of volume of legislation alone proved to be almost unfeasibly illiberal, snoopy and often downright creepy. CCTV, ID cards, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, not to mention a raft of liberty-effacing anti-terrorist legislation… all of these measures helped forge a state that was completely at ease with routinely suspecting and monitoring its citizens.
And now, having discovered that a bunch of press hacks might have been creepily snooping on their own voicemail messages, the embers of New Labour have come back to bleating, indignant life. On Friday, the now Lord Prescott was telling his fellow peers that News Corp was guilty of a ‘criminal act’, that NotW was guilty of a ‘criminal act’, that former NotW editor Rebekah Brooks was guilty of a ‘criminal act’. It was like he had learned a new phrase.
Elsewhere, Labour MP Chris Bryant has been calling for more robust police action against News Corp, promising listeners to BBC Radio Wales that ‘this was just the start of the story’. (Bryant, I should add, like countless other politicians, seems almost desperate to discover that his phone has been hacked, as if it’s a form of self-validation.) And former PM Gordon Brown has been leaking stories that his phone might have been hacked for the best part of four months.
The lack of self-awareness is breathtaking. While New Labour was in power, the ex-ministers and MPs now crying foul over NotW’s attempt to rake up scoops from message inboxes were more than happy to extend the state’s ability to monitor us, to surveil us, to keep tabs on us. The most startling example of this is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the very act that could now be used to prosecute NotW. RIPA, or, as it’s often called, ‘the snoopers charter’, granted the police, the intelligence services, Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue the power to monitor all our communications, from intercepting emails to compelling internet service providers to hand over information about our surfing habits. Also, the state could ‘obtain a picture of [a person’s] life, activities and associates’.
Quite why the state needed these powers was never made clear, although in 2003 then home office minister Caroline Flint did mutter something about them being ‘vital investigatory tools’ in the war against terrorists and paedophiles. It could be frightening to learn then that in 2008 it was estimated that there was something in the region of 3,000 RIPA operations active on any given day. But worry not: this was not evidence of widespread paedophilic depravity or terrorist plotting. In fact, the largest portion of RIPA operations were undertaken not by MI6 but by those bastions of litter-picking vigilance, local councils, busily on the look out for such heinous crimes as, er, fly-tipping, dog fouling, retailers selling furniture not up to fire-safety standards, cleaners pulling sickies, and care assistants claiming too much on travel expenses. Westminster borough council even authorised a spying operation on greengrocers refusing to convert from imperial to metric measures.
One of the main rallying cries of New Labour was: ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ Now, some former New Labourites are peeved that the same diktat has been used against them by journalists. Forgive me for failing to well up. It seems that such is commentators’ animus towards the so-called Murdoch empire, that the architects of New Labour’s oppressive edifice can now be presented as victims. The danger here is that the freedom to hold political power to account, the freedom to scrutinise and challenge our rulers, that is, press freedom, is being sacrificed for some anti-Murdoch-inspired schadenfreude. The real threat to our liberties does not come from some lazy, unscrupulous hacks, but – as ever – from a state that is a little too willing to get to know us.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.