Is there anyone left in public life who has not been the target of Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy evesdroppers? We’ve had Prince William, Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell, Leslie Ash, even the sexist sport commentator Andy Gray and the former MP George Galloway. Not having had your messages intercepted is practically an admission that you’re loser and no one is interested in you. Ex Labour ministers like David Clarke say they ‘assume’ their messages are intercepted. Michael Portillo, the broadcaster and former Tory defence secretary, says he hasn’t used voice-mail for ten years.
News International is due for a pretty hefty phone bill, now that all this is out in the open. The going rate for compensation from the Murdoch empire is £1 million - established by PR agent Max Clifford after he found his mobile was hacked. Everyone and their mother is now lining up for a lump sum - including Kelly Hoppen, stepmother of Sienna Miller who says her family was targeted as recently as last year. Incredibly, the phone companies have only recently begun to notify their customers when illegal attempts have been made to tap into their phones.
This is almost as incredible as the fact that Scotland Yard was aware of at least four thousand names, including the deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, which they declined to follow up five years ago after the imprisonment of Glen Mulcaire. He was the private investigator who was paid a £100k a year by the News of the World to come up with exclusive stories. The Met thought no good would be served by finding out who else in the Murdoch empire was in on the scam. Wonder why?
NoW was then edited by Andy Coulson who resigned ten days ago as David Cameron’s director of communications. His protestations of ignorance about phone hacking by his journalists have failed to convince. It’s just conceivable that he might have told his minions that he wanted stories and didn’t care how they got them. But he would’ve been a pretty poor journalist not to have known that phones messages were routinely being accessed by Fleet St hacks. Could he seriously have been that uninterested in where his journalists were getting their scoops?
The method, by the way, is almost laughably simple. Mobiles all come with default pin numbers for accessing voice-mail - obvious numbers like 1234 or 1111. It is up to the user to change the pin number, which of course very few of us do. I certainly hadn’t. So all the hack needs to do is dial up the numbers of celebrities and use the standard pin numbers to access their voicemail. Then it’s down to El Vinos for trebles all round - or it used to be when UK newspapers were still able to afford offices in Fleet St.
This is part of the background to this sorry tale. Newspapers are losing circulation and advertising and are desperate about competition from the internet. At the same time, costs are being cut ruthlessly. It means that journalists are tempted to go for easy routes to hot tales that will increase sales. No one can afford to have packs of journalists hunting down stories anymore. Mind you, phone-hacking is really only an extension of the kind of practices that good old ‘foot-in-the-door’ hacks used to use. I recall being told of the dubious methods that were used to get pictures of the victims of the Ibrox Disaster in 1971. Sometimes pictures just fell off the mantelpiece and into journalists’ pockets.
In the past, journalists have had a certain licence to cut corners in the interest of public information. Think of the Daily Telegraph paying for that CD rom, detailing MPs’ expenses claims for duck houses, leaked by a worker in the Commons Fee Office. Probably illegal; clearly unethical. Except that the information received was of such public importance that everyone accepted that the end justified the means. Similarly, the Wikileaks disclosures were undoubtedly acquired unlawfully. This was a more difficult case ethically because the leaking of intelligence reports could have put at risk the lives of members of the security and diplomatic services of Britain and America. On balance, though, most people see this as acceptable.
However, when it comes to Prince William’s phone messages from his future wife, or actresses suffering from near-fatal diseases, or the Prime Minister’s mobile, the defence of public interest falls into the gutter. Lord Wallace, the former deputy First Minister, has said that this scandal is journalism’s equivalent of the MPs’ expenses scandal, and I am inclined to agree with him. These are the kind of things that make you ashamed to be called a journalist. It’s why we’re the only people who score lower than MPs in surveys of public trust. The press has been lamentably slow in putting its house in order.
But what is equally worrying is the extent to which the police seem to have seen it as their job to stall investigations into the ramifications of the scandal. Last week they were forced to reopen the case after a public outcry. The police say they have new emails to explore. Well, about time. They had no reservations about devoting thousands of hours of police time to investigating Tommy Sheridan’s sex life in order to save the News of the World’s £200,000 in libel damages. Sheridan was also a target of phone hacking and will use this in his appeal against last week’s three year sentence for perjury.
The police have been too close to the Murdoch empire and so have politicians. David Cameron showed appalling judgement in hiring Andy Coulson as his director of communications even after he had resigned from the News of the World following the original hacking revelations. The PM presumably hoped that Coulson would help keep The Sun and NoW supporting the Tories. Their owner, Rupert Murdoch, is too powerful by half, with politicians of all parties desperate to appease him and his organs. Let’s hope that this affair cuts him down to size. And that in future, the press subjects itself to the same standards it routinely demands of politicians.