Donald Trelford: MPs should be discussing more serious issues than this warming of cold potatoes

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The Independent Online

As I get older, quite a lot that MPs say and do makes me cross, but I have rarely been so grumpy as I was last week, watching the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport resuming its farcical inquiry into phone-hacking and other alleged irregularities at the News of the World.

This long-running Westminster inquest comes at a time when the newspaper industry and much of the rest of the media is in meltdown. Yet the committee continues its fascination with a special report on “tabloid dirty tricks” in The Guardian on 9 July.

The original story must have seemed like manna from heaven to the chairman, John Flasby Whittingdale, providing a golden chance for MPs to get their own back on the press after The Daily Telegraph’s derailment of their expenses gravy train. His spiky predecessor, Sir Gerald Kaufman, used to annoy editors at times, but at least one felt that he really knew and cared about newspapers, having been a serious political journalist himself on the Daily Mirror and New Statesman. Whittingdale, a former Thatcher aide who seems to have spent his whole life inside politics, seems more interested in headlines.

The Guardian had discovered that, as part on an out-of-court settlement over the phone-tapping of Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, News International had made it a condition that the court papers should remain confidential. Gleefully revealing some of these confidential details, The Guardian set out to show that phone-tapping and other invasions into the privacy of MPs, sports stars and showbiz celebrities had been committed in “thousands” of cases by private investigators acting on behalf of News of the World reporters.

A main target of The Guardian’s reporting was Andy Coulson, head of communications for the Conservative party leader, David Cameron, who had been deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World at the time of the alleged misconduct. He resigned from the newspaper in 2007 after the paper’s chief royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was jailed.

What was not made entirely clear is that most of the cases went back to 2003. In other words, it was an old story and The Guardian was warming up cold potatoes. Many of the cases had been identified initially through an inquiry by the Information Commissioner. The others had been investigated by Scotland Yard, which pursued the Goodman case and that of a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who was also jailed.

After the court cases, the ethics code of the Press Complaints Commission had been tightened up and the PCC had conducted seminars for journalists to clarify the new guidelines.

Yet last week the MPs brought before them the new Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, to talk about the report prepared by his predecessor, Richard Thomas, in 2006 about events that had occurred some years before that. They also called to give evidence Assistant Commissioner John Yates of Scotland Yard, who reiterated his view, already made in a public statement, that an extensive investigation into the affair by the Metropolitan Police had concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any individuals other than the two who were convicted and jailed. And so the committee’s inquiry goes on.

Looking back at the original stories, it is clear that The Guardian had two main targets: Cameron and Rupert Murdoch’s News International. The front-page headline was: “Murdoch’s £1 million bill for hiding dirty tricks,” followed inside by big pictures of Murdoch, his chief lieutenant, Les Hinton, and Rebekah Wade, former editor of The Sun, now Mr Hinton’s successor at NI in London. Inside was a two-page headline: “Trail of hacking and deceit under the nose of Tory PR chief.”

The paper followed up on Friday, 10 July, with another front-page story, noting “MPs summon Murdoch chiefs over dirty tricks,” with more big pictures of Murdoch, Hinton, Wade and Coulson, with the headline: “Masters of the dark arts.” Saturday’s paper, on 11 July, carried the headline “Commons inquiry strikes close to heart of Murdoch empire”. The paper reported that Gordon Brown had been greatly cheered by the embarrassment caused to Cameron by Coulson’s involvement. But a note of exasperation was creeping in: “Police refuse to reopen inquiry on phone hacking.”

On Monday, 13 July, there were more pictures of Coulson (three), Murdoch (two), Wade (two) and Hinton, with a rather plaintive headline: “The biggest media story for years – so why the silence?” The resident columnist here, Stephen Glover, suspected a conspiracy between The Guardian and the BBC (no fan of Murdoch, as demonstrated by the confrontation at the Edinburgh Television Festival between James Murdoch and Robert Peston). What amused me was the circular way in which BBC news ran big with The Guardian’s story – having doubtless been fed it intravenously – and then Peter Wilby in The Guardian used the BBC’s projection of its own story as proof of how important it was.

The truth is that it isn’t important or relevant any longer – some illegal fishing expeditions were certainly made by various newspapers in the early years of the century, but since then the law has changed and the lessons have been learnt and acted upon.

As for Coulson, I have known him for some years and chaired judging panels that awarded his paper glittering prizes. He is a shrewd and honourable man who would not have proclaimed his innocence so publicly if there was any danger that the facts would prove him wrong.

The MPs should have seen this before wasting so much public time and money on a useless inquiry.

Newspapers currently face some very real and critical problems, as losses, closures and redundancies daily remind us. Perhaps our representatives in Westminster might like to turn their attention to these instead.

Happy birthday

Congratulations to the British Journalism Review on its 20th anniversary this month. The editor, Bill Hagerty, and his predecessor, Geoffrey Goodman (both unpaid), have created a probing and highly readable journal to which every serious journalist should subscribe. Through the website of its publisher, Sage, it now gets more hits from overseas than in Britain.

I liked his style

The many talents of Keith Waterhouse - playwright, novelist, columnist and drinker supreme - have been rightly lauded. I have not laughed at anything so much as his play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. But his lasting epitaph on my bookshelves will be the newspaper style guide he wrote for the Daily Mirror. Every journalist should have one.

Donald Trelford was editor of The Observer from 1975 to 1993, and is Emeritus Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University.