Matthew Norman: Morals handed down in tabloids of stone

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The Independent Online

Not since Captain Renault told Rick “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here”, as he collected his roulette winnings in Casablanca, has there been anything like it.

We’re all far too shocked by the revelations about the News of the World and the systematic infringement of data protection law to comment on the detail. But what’s so excruciating here is the possibility, however remote, that the tabloid press will now feel constrained about delivering lectures about ethical shortcomings in other areas of national life. It is essential that the papers, particularly the red tops, continue to lay down the law, especially regarding the BBC.

Some naïve fools have advised director-general Mark Thompson to rise off his knees and declare, in the style of the faux outraged frontbencher, that he won’t take ethical lectures from those who routinely bug phones, buy medical records and police tip-offs, go through dustbins, and so on, but if some of our great titles appear a touch dizzy in some of their dealings, that’s understandable.

An inevitable side effect of life atop the moral high ground is altitude sickness. Yet the naughtiness of a few score renegade reporters is no reason to cease trusting the tabloids on matters ethical. They remain our best and only hope, and the sooner we follow Yates of the Yard’s rousing lead and put this trifling business behind us, so much the better for us all.

Hacking at the double

The Beeb has dwelt on this “scandal” with such unseemly relish (as The Sun’s refusal even to mention it establishes, it’s not a story at all) that it’s high time for the Murdoch press to counter-attack with an assault on inaccurate reporting. On Thursday’s Ten O’Clock News, for example, the BBC took great care to explain how easily a “rogue” journalist could hack into mobile phone messages. This is, of course, cobblers.

The standard practice is to use two reporters (which technically qualifies as a conspiracy), one to call the mobile to tie up the victim talking while the other rings the number, going straight through to voicemail and tapping in the four digit pin number. This is the sort of sloppy reporting that derides the licence fee itself. A stern “Sun Says” on the matter, Rebekah, if you please.

Big red trap

The most elegant reaction thus far came from the ruby red lips of Kelvin MacKenzie. Caught on his way to a party by Newsnight’s Michael Crick on Thursday, Kelvin was typically suave. The whole thing, he explained was “a load of socialist claptrap”. Genius. He knows Andy Coulson, Kelvin added, and “it was a one-off.... No one was more shocked than him.” There hasn’t been a Renault in vogue like this since Papa and Nicole introduced us to the Clio.

Sponge dries

Another former Sun editor, Stuart Higgins, was also much so in fact, that having soaked up Mr Crick’s impertinent questioning, the Human Sponge found himself robbed of the power of speech. What may be needed here, purely to clear the air and draw a line under this distastefully over-hyped attack on tabloid morals, is a panel of investigation. Lord Hutton should be wheeled out of the Twilight Home for Judicial Nincompoops to head it, with Kelvin, Higgy and newly retired NoW deputy editor Neil Wallis, whose 1999 keynote address on anti-red top snobbery remains the high point in British Press Awards history, as his colleagues. As ever in British public life, rigid independence is the key.

Misfiring line

Speaking of which, hats off not only to the Press Complaints Commission for handling the initial inquiry into the bugging of royal mobiles, under previous boss Sir Christopher Meyer, with the usual obsessional rigour. Praise must also go to John Whittingdale, chair of the Commons select committee on media, for the speed of his response last week. John can be trusted to handle this matter with fearless independence. He’s always been careful to stay at arm’s length from those in whose judgment he sits (it’s ages since he enjoyed a day’s shooting as a guest of Associated Newspapers), and to avoid even the appearance of favouritism. Asked once which media figure he most admires, John replied: “Rupert Murdoch”. You can’t buy judgment like that. It’s priceless.

Total confusion

It remains too soon to tell whether any renaissance of BBC self-confidence will spread, but there is work to be done. On Wednesday morning, a typically intriguing online poll asked the public to predict how many runs would be scored in the first session of the Ashes Test at Cardiff. “The result of this vote,” ran the disclaimer at the bottom, “should not be taken to represent public opinion.”

A cold climate

Headline of the Week goes to the Daily Mail for the words above top lay climatologist Tom Utley’s effort. “With These Idiots In Charge, I Feel Like Leaving The Country,” it snappily ran. “But How On Earth Can I Find £465 For The Family’s Passports?” It can’t be easy on a Mail columnist’s salary. Especially when it’s as long ago as 13 February that, beneath the headline “Forgive Me For Flaunting A Wad Of 50,000 Crisp Smackers At The Height Of The Recession”, Tom wrote about coming into a £50,000 windfall he “doesn’t really need” from an old mortgage endowment policy.