Stephen Glover: The Guardian's phone-tapping scandal sunk by lack of evidence
Monday 09 November 2009
I can still remember the exultant, almost mystical, look on Kirsty Wark's face as she announced that The Guardian was about to reveal a major scandal involving phone tapping and Rupert Murdoch.
It was Wednesday 8 July, and the decks were cleared at BBC2's Newsnight to give due importance to what was billed as a sensation.
The Guardian led with the story the next day, and for 36 hours almost every BBC news bulletin followed suit. Other newspapers were rather less impressed, giving rise to the accusation that they were not sufficiently concerned with abuses of press power or, in the case of the Murdoch papers, were actively trying to hush them up.
My view expressed in this column was that 'most of the story was old [and] we already knew eight-tenths of it'. The new bit was that the Murdoch-owned News of the World had paid over £1m to silence three victims whose telephones had been hacked into by the Sunday red-top several years ago. Although these payments related to the known activities of Clive Goodman, who served four months in prison in 2007 for phone hacking, The Guardian's reporter Nick Davies suggested such practices were still widespread.
Indeed, the following week Mr Davies and Alan Rusbridger, the newspaper's editor, trooped down to the Commons to give evidence to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Both men had a somewhat affronted air, as though they could scarcely credit the nefarious activities of News of the World journalists. Mr Davies declared that journalists on the newspaper other than Mr Goodman had been aware of illegal phone tapping.
Today the Press Complaints Commission publishes a report into the affair. Its inquiry in 2007 had concluded that illegality did not stretch further than Mr Goodman. In light of The Guardian's allegations, the commission felt it should reconsider its earlier findings. The conclusion is that, notwithstanding the brouhaha about a major scandal, the newspaper has not produced any new evidence.
Parts of the inquiry are unintentionally comic. Mr Rusbridger is reported as saying that he would not be 'much use' to the Commission as he had 'no first-hand knowledge of the matters we published'. He suggested that his man Mr Davies, who had carried out 'extensive research', would be more useful. His man Mr Davies was equally unforthcoming on the grounds that he had to protect his sources.
In the end Mr Davies admitted what he had not said in any of his articles: 'I have no evidence of phone hacking after May 2007 beyond the conversationswhich I have had with journalists from various titles who say the practice continues although, they say, it has become more tightly controlled, largely for budgetary reasons.'
It does not sound very much does it? It hardly justifies The Guardian's and the BBC's claims of a major new scandal. The report finishes with a deadly flourish: 'Despite the manner in which the allegations were treated in some quarters [this is presumably a reference to the BBC] - as if they related to current or recent activity - there is no evidence that the practice of phone message tapping is ongoing.'
Will there be an apology from The Guardian and its accomplices in the BBC for blowing up a non-story? I doubt it. They will probably suggest the Press Complaints Commission is self-interestedly rubber-stamping its earlier report. Let them say what they like. When pressed, they have been unable to produce a shred of evidence to support their sensation.
The Sun is suffering from its allegiance to the Tories
In an interview in GQ magazine, Gordon Brown says The Sun's recent embrace of David Cameron was 'a terrible mistake'. It may appear a selfserving remark, but last week's events suggest he could have a point.
The Tory leader announced not only that there would be no referendum on Lisbon if he is elected - he says there can't be after the treaty has been ratified - but also that there won't be any kind of referendum at all. One might have expected The Sun to go bananas. The paper is probably more preoccupied with the European Union than with any other political issue. Moreover, in September 2007 Mr Cameron had written an open letter to its readers giving a 'cast-iron guarantee [that] if I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations'.
But while the Daily Mail went ballistic, the normally no less Eurosceptic Sun was notably restrained. It lashed Labour and the Prime Minister for not having called a referendum, and did not castigate Mr Cameron for breaking his 'cast-iron guarantee'. Unlike some Eurosceptics, it made no demand for an alternative referendum. It seemed the paper's new editor, Dominic Mohan, was jumping up and down with one hand tied behind his back - and that hand had been tied there as a result of his public betrothal to David Cameron on 30 September.
The Tory leader threw The Sun a crust by writing another letter to its readers in which he promised that 'this country will never be a bit-part player in some European superstate'. This letter was mostly hot air, and yet it probably saved Mr Mohan's blushes for the time being. The truth is, though, that The Sun's enthusiastic embrace of Mr Cameron has disabled it from saying what it really believes.
We should work with Murdoch to protect good journalism
Rupert Murdoch let slip last week that his company is talking with other publishers, including the Telegraph Media Group, about how to charge online readers. This has led to suggestions that a cartel may be operating that could be in breach of British anti-trust regulations.
If it were, the law would be an ass. Many newspapers in this country are losing money. One reasonm is that they are shedding readers to the web where their content is free. Mr Murdoch rightly regards this as ridiculous, though whether he can doanything about it is another matter.
Good journalism costs a great deal of money. Ergo,itshould not be free. If it continues to be free, newspapers will go on weakening, and some will wither and die. That is why I hope every national publisher is closeted with Rupert Murdoch's representatives. I hope they come up with a plan which succeeds. Though I fear in my heart they may not, I have no doubt that any scheme to charge can only work if publishers act together.
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