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Phone-hacking becoming a tipping point moment in politics/media relations

Posted on 29 January 2011 | 9:01am

I was rushing around a lot yesterday making a short film on phone-hacking for The One Show on Monday, having earlier done an interview for a much longer Despatches documentary being made on the same subject.

TV can be a very frustrating medium, which is one of the reasons I don’t do that much of it. The faff factor tends to be high, and though you can pack a fair bit into a few minutes’ film, I still rate a good newspaper article ahead of a telly report in terms of how much you can pack in. But hopefully by the time we have finished it will be worth a look.

There are four main interviewees in the One Show film so far and a disparate bunch they are too.

– Tory MP John Whittingdale, chair of the DCMS select committee who believes he was misled by News International executives on phone-hacking and will want to see them again once the new police and DPP probes are complete.

– Publicist Max Clifford, who settled his case with the News of the World, but was nonetheless interesting on how widespread he believes criminal activities on newspapers to be – and how high up he believes it is likely to be known about – and on the financial arrangements between newspapers and police officers. Interesting too on how he planted false stories via mobile as a way of confirming his suspicions that he was being hacked.

– Lawyer Mark Lewis, who represtented 700k pay-out man Gordon Taylor and who said that not just targeted celebs but also anyone who left messages that were listened to was entitled to damages. He thinks the final damages bill could run into multi-millions, and that though News of the World was the first to get caught, others will be drawn in soon.The information is all coming via High Court civil cases, he says, but could end up being used at the Old Bailey.

– And former News of the World reporter Paul McMullan who says everyone was at it, all the key people in high places knew it, and that as well as hacking messages, newspapers regularly get stories by using scanners to listen in to actual conversations. If people are stupid enough to talk on their phones, people are going to listen, he said, adding that nobody was entitled to privacy.

There was a universal view that the police investigation has been something of a joke. McMullan said he was asked three times to visit the police and be interviewed under caution. Three times he declined. Then he was eliminated from their inquiries. ‘If it had been a reporter, he’d have been sacked for incompetence,’ he said.

Mr Whittingdale clearly thinks the home affairs select commitee should look at the police handling of the affair. I have put in a bid for John ‘Yates of the Yard’, he who got such a wonderful press for his bravery (sic) in following up the gossip. rumour and innuendo about cash for honours (sic), complete with visits to the PM’s office and dawn raids on prime ministerial aides in nighties, but who felt there was nothing but ‘gossip, rumour and innuendo’ to many claims made about phone-hacking … This despite the fact two men had already gone to jail … Cue ‘rogue reporter’ defence shared by cops and News International which now, as it was always going to do, has collapsed.

We have also asked for News International to appear but if their current approach is anything to go by I doubt they will. One of the things Max Clifford and I discussed – the film crew was amazed it was the first time we had met – was how useless most media organisations are at media relations. He felt it was because they were powerful and didn’t need to bother. I think it is a strange mixture of arrogance and defensiveness.

One thing’s for sure though. The Andy Coulson departure from Downing Street eight days ago – and I fear most of the things his former colleague Mr McMullan said of him won’t get past a lawyer – was but the start of an avalanche on this.

Max Clifford believes a lot of powerful people from David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch and the Met Commissioner down now just want the issue to go away, and therefore it will. Max seemed a much nicer and more intelligent guy than I had expected. But on this, I think he is wrong.

In a short film we probably won’t have time to go into the BSkyB issue, though no doubt Despatches will. But I have a feeling about that too … That just as Coulson’s exit became the tipping point that moved phone-hacking from Guardian page 5 to TV newsleader, so if culture secretary Jeremy Hunt waives through the News Corp takeover of BSkyB, it will be the tipping point that takes the government from being unpopular but tolerated to something far worse, from which they may not get back.

Politicians tend to fight the last campaign. If David Cameron has any sense he will be looking at this one through a new media lens.  It used to be a given that staying close to the Murdoch Empire was a net benefit for a political leader or party. That may have changed. Cameron’s failure to win a majority whilst having virtually all of the press behind him is a good indicator that the public are now in a very different place to both politicians and media as to the nature of the relationship between the two.

  • Thanks so much for this blog post – agree with your analysis 100% – amazing stuff on police from MacMullin, presumably Coulson knows this is on record?

  • Olli Issakainen

    News International (NI) is vigorously pursuing the truth. The CPS has a robust approach to the investigation. The police, after the “most careful investigation” earlier, now have promised to leave no stone unturned. And the PCC is…well, I must have missed that one but surely it is also doing something profound. Surely.
    But why is this all happening only now?
    Apparently the “NEW” evidence has been in the email system of NI all the time, but no one has bothered to look for it.
    In the original court case Mr Mulcaire pledged guilty to hacking the phones of five other celebrities. The presiding judge said that in relation to these counts Mulcaire had DEALT WITH OTHERS AT NEWS INTERNATIONAL.
    But there was no investigation into who these others were. NI, the police and the PCC told that only one “rogue reporter” was involved without carrying a full investigation.
    This raises some interesting questions. Why NI has been saying that only one reporter was involved? Has Andy Coulson claimed since 2007 that only one rogue reporter was involved in phone-hacking? Was David Cameron aware of “the others” when he appointed Mr Coulson?
    Anyway, Mr Cameron has shown poor judgement in appointing Mr Coulson and keeping him in his job so long. Even worse was his decision to have dinner with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in the middle of a quasi-judical process as News Corp is bidding for BSkyB.
    The role of Ms Brooks is interesting. She is the former editor of the NoW and the Sun. She has admitted that the Sun paid money for police for information.
    Rebekah Brooks has refused to come before a Commons Committee to be heard on phone-hacking. MPs say they have felt threatened by NI.
    So, did Ms Brooks also know about phone-hacking? Was she involved in it as an editor? These important questions are now on everyone´s lips.
    We have now “new” evidence, but NI has so far denied that any such evidence exists.
    A condition of success in British politics has been to please the Murdoch media empire.
    The police accepted the single rogue reporter defence without a question. They did not investigate properly. But police should have no fear, favour or partiality. We need to have faith in the rule of law.
    It seems that the only way to get to bottom of all this is to have a different police force to investigate the case. The government should have already ordered this.
    The political reputation of David Cameron is now in tatters. Has the Met been involved in a cover-up? What about the PCC and self-regulation? What about NI´s handling of the affair?
    We need to know the truth!

  • Pauline McArdle

    doyou regret going to Australia to win Murdoch’s support? or do you think thy would have supported you anyway because it was so clear you were going to win? Btw I wish a few more people in politcs could speak as clearly as you do on these complex matters

  • Chris Todd

    Just heard you on Robert Elms show … why oh why can’t everyone defend the Labour record like you do? It is as though the passion buttons have been put on mute when I hear most Labour politicians

  • Trudi Kingstone

    Problem is Cameron is basically a glorified PR man so he judges success or failure by how the media see him. So no chance of him taking the right decisions on this

  • Jacquie R

    There have been many changes, but newspapers still set the agenda and have enormous political influence, particularly where their proprietors also own TV and radio channels, and will continue to do so. In Murdoch’s case, his range of communications tools is enormous and world-wide, including the internet, publishing, entertainment and now in the US (this is worrying) education.

    The current furore, however, gives an opportunity for a debate which could pave the way for change. As we know the Tories have vested interests in the status quo, so it must be down to Labour to slay the dragon.

    If I may quote from yesterday’s DemocracyFail blog:

    “Ed Miliband and his team .. should do two things right away. First they should make clear to the British public that they will not be puppets of Rupert Murdoch’s or any other media empire. Those days are over. Secondly, they should argue vociferously for the establishment of a new media commission to review all the existing rules and practices on ownership, regulation and standards.

    “The public may not want to cancel their Sky subscriptions, but the mood has changed and the time is ripe for Labour to show Murdoch what the door is for.”

  • Janete

    A very good point. It is important to remind voters regularly of what we achieved in office and we should be battling hard and with passion, particularly on the NHS; we are far too quiet on this subject at the moment.

  • Quinney

    Why oh why can’t we put anyone half decent on Question Time? ( AC & John Denham excepted).

  • Sarah Dodds

    Just curious….
    Hearing lots and lots and lots about celebs and politicians being hacked.
    But nothing about run of the mill members of the public who may find themselves (- sometimes by mistake !) in the centre of a media storm?
    Surely this is not just limited to those with a high profile? Anyone fighting the corner for those who have been mistreated by the press in this way, without ever having sought publicity in the first place?

  • Nick

    Perhaps the DCMS Select Committee should ask to speak to Andy Hayman. As an ex-Met copper who now writes for News International, he might be well placed to reassure us all about how seriously these allegations are being investigated.