Donald Trelford: For now, this 'scandal' is still light on evidence
Media Studies: The police concentrated on the royals because that could have revealed a major breach of security
Monday 21 February 2011
Viewed from a small island in the Mediterranean, where I am writing this, the phone-hacking saga begins to look obsessive, hysterical and opportunistic – a case of "dog eats dog" gone barking mad. Some of the journalists involved are no doubt motivated by a genuine desire to improve the conduct of their profession, but there are other vested interests at work whose motives are not so pure.
There is the anti-Rupert Murdoch faction, for example, which includes some rival media groups who fear his market dominance. They want to stop his company gaining control of the part of BSkyB it doesn't already own, and it suits them to keep his reputation in the mire while the issue remains unresolved.
Then there are the MPs, still smarting from the drubbing they received from the newspapers over the expenses scandal and itching to get their own back. The Labour Party enjoyed prompting the resignation of Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World turned Downing Street spin doctor, because it was a political embarrassment for David Cameron.
Next are the celebrities who have been exposed by the tabloids in the past and look forward not just to revenge but to a cash reward if there is any chance that their phones have been tapped. This group is egged on by lawyers who see a massive pay-off for themselves and their clients for alleged invasions of privacy.
But surely, the argument goes, if News International is paying out massive sums to buy off these celebrities, there must have been much more phone-hacking going on at the paper than has been admitted so far, and the police must have failed to catch all the culprits. Not necessarily so, for these are civil actions in which proof is determined by the balance of probabilities, not by the test of reasonable doubt required for a criminal conviction.
It didn't help the police inquiry that the Information Commissioner's list of breaches of data protection – on several newspapers, incidentally – did not name any reporters for fear of breaching their privacy. The police concentrated on the royals because that could have revealed a major breach of security. The claim that Scotland Yard was soft on the News of the World because the pair were in cahoots is described by a friend who is closer to the tabloid world than I am as: "Nonsense. My experience was that the cops would do anything to turn over a paper or its journos."
It seems extraordinary that this story should remain so high on the news agenda. It was all a long time ago, two people have been to jail, the paper's editor has resigned twice from senior posts without any convincing evidence being produced against him, the Press Complaints Commission appears satisfied that newspapers now abide by data protection law, and police inquiries have resumed.
Evidence is the key word, and the press should wait for that. The fact that a celebrity thinks he or she may have been hacked isn't evidence. The fact that Mulcaire gave information to the paper's news desk is not evidence that many people must have had guilty knowledge of his phone-hacking – a straw at which the Guardian and The Independent have been grasping rather desperately in recent days. "Where is the Daily Mail when you need it?" pleaded Roy Greenslade. When the Guardian has to call on the help of its sworn enemy, it really must be struggling to keep the story alive.
Still an industry we should be proud of
It must be around 35 years since I was first asked to judge press awards. This year I am judging four different sets of awards. "Why do we go on?" afellow judging veteran moaned tome the other day. The answer, I think, is that it restores one's faithin newspapers at a time whentheir standards are under frequent attack.
Even the most assiduous news hound cannot possibly read everything. I read as much, probably more, than most people (increasingly online these days), yet I am amazed when I read the entries for the press awards to discover how many marvellous features, columns and interviews I have missed. Stuff that is entertaining, enriching, inspiring – I can't quote specifics because I amin the midst of judging this year'sPress Awards (formerly the British Press Awards), now run by the Society of Editors.
I have often thought that a paperback should be published every year of the winning pieces as a reminder to the public of what the British press can achieve at its best. The public certainly seem to need a reminder.
A first outing for the newest Trelford
Many years ago, Michael Green wrote a hilarious newspaper novel called Don't Print My Name Upside Down. I thought of it last week when I inserted into the column I write for a paper in Mallorca a picture of myself with my new son Ben. Unfortunately, it appeared upside down, with Ben cut off completely.
Mind you, gremlins can creep into British papers too. There was the famous case of a red top showing a horse in the Grand National jumping under Beechers Brook – and doubtless many similar cock-ups elsewhere. Ben was luckier than the horse: he finally made his first public appearance this week, with both of us the right way up.
Donald Trelford was Editor of The Observer, 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University and President of the London Press Club.
Stephen Glover is away.
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