Nearly three weeks ago The Guardian filled many pages, and the BBC used up much airtime, with allegations about the News Of The World. The paper had discovered that the Sunday red-top had paid more than £1m to three people after hacking into their mobile phones.
Though these payments certainly constituted news, the former eavesdropping techniques of the News Of The World were already known, as I pointed out in this column. The red-top was one of many newspapers which engaged private investigators to obtain private information. Andy Coulson, the paper's editor when these practices came to light, was forced to resign two-and-a-half years ago, and Clive Goodman, its royal editor, was sent to prison for six months.
Nevertheless, The Guardian, aided and abetted by the BBC, presented the story as an entirely new scandal, and placed itself on the moral high ground, where it loves to be. Its editor, Alan Rusbridger, and the story's main author, Nick Davies, appeared in front of the Commons culture committee, and implicated another News Of The World journalist, Neville Thurlbeck, in the hacking, though without supplying what I would describe as compelling evidence.
Now it emerges that The Guardian has itself on at least one occasion employed what it describes as a "business intelligence company" - and what we might call a private investigator - to obtain information about a multi-national company. The paper had no intention of committing any illegal act, and I for one would heartily support what it did as good journalism. All the same, its use of private investigators may cast its high-minded criticisms of the News Of The World in a somewhat different light.
There is a fascinating aspect to this story: the role of The Sunday Times, a sister paper of the News Of The World. On Friday 10 July, two days after The Guardian's opening salvo, The Sunday Times's ace investigative reporter David Leppard was preparing a piece
about The Guardian's use of a private investigator. He had learnt that in 1999 Mr Rusbridger contacted a company to look at allegations of criminal behaviour by the American multi-national Monsanto, whose plans for growing genetically-modified crops his paper had frequently questioned.
Mr Leppard believed he had something more: the imputation of illegality. A shadowy accomplice with whom he had worked on previous stories, and who is apparently familiar with illegal surveillance methods employed by private investigators, told him they had been used in the case of The Guardian and Monsanto. This person alleged that a third party hired by the "business intelligence company" had hacked into Monsanto's emails and phones - in the manner of private investigators used by the News Of The World.
Apart from the satisfaction of striking back at The Guardian, Mr Leppard may have had a further interest in pursuing this story. He is the arch-enemy of The Guardian's Nick Davies, who criticised his working methods in Flat Earth News, billed as an exposé of the dark side of the Press. On the evening of Friday 10 July, Mr Leppard spoke at least once on the telephone to Mr Rusbridger, and they had a heated exchange. Mr Rusbridger wholly denied the imputation of illegality and, according to a source, telephoned the paper's editor John Witherow. No story about this matter appeared in The Sunday Times on 12 July.
Mr Rusbridger was nonetheless shaken enough by Mr Leppard's accusations to contact Hamilton McMillan, who had been a director of the "business intelligence company" used in 1999. Mr McMillan retorted that "The Sunday Times allegations are false. The information they supplied to me to support these allegation was also patently invented."
The Guardian has passed on his denials to me, while maintaining that its enquiries revealed nothing untoward about Monsanto. Incidentally, I should add that Mr Leppard refused to speak to me. Ace investigative reporter he may be, but he is as nervous as a three-legged kitten when on the receiving end of questions.
So where does this leave us? There is no evidence that illegal methods were used on behalf of The Guardian by a third party investigating Monsanto. But that does not seem to me the most interesting point. The fact is that, if you employ outside agencies to obtain information, you cannot maintain control over the methods they use. Once you dip a toe into that murky world, you are no longer in charge of the process. If I had, like Mr Rusbridger, employed a private investigator, I do not think I would have so readily got on my high horse in relation to News Of The World.
As I say, I have no problem whatsoever with a newspaper digging about in the affairs of a controversial company such as Monsanto. Mr Rusbridger was once something of a campaigner against "Frankenstein foods", and even wrote a two-part drama for the BBC on the subject with the author Ronan Bennett.
What gets my goat is Mr Rusbridger's holier-than-thou aura, his sense that he somehow occupies a higher and better universe than the rest of us. We are all journalists and he, like the grubbiest reporter on the News Of The World, was not above engaging the services of a private investigator.
Mr Justice Eady was also loser in Desmond's ill-fated action
When a journalist is sued by a press baron, my sympathies are with the former. One's instinct is to root for David versus Goliath. Mr Justice Eady, however, appears to have a different cast of mind. Of course, I would never accuse any High Court judge of bias, but it did seem that in the libel action brought by Richard Desmond, the proprietor of Express Newspapers, against Tom Bower, a lone author and journalist, which ended last Thursday, the judge was inclined to favour the tycoon.
It is difficult to believe he did so out of any admiration for Mr Desmond. Mr Justice Eady appears to be governed by process, and his desire to observe every jot and tittle of what he regards as proper procedure. Much evidence concerning Mr Desmond's character was deemed inadmissible, in particular a remark made to one Jafar Omid, a fund manager. The press tycoon is said to have threatened Mr Omid by saying: "I am the worst f***ing enemy you'll ever have."
Ronald Thwaites, Mr Bower's impressive QC, had to go to the Court of Appeal to get this evidence admitted. Lord Justice Hooper said there was a danger of a miscarriage of justice if it were not. In his summing up, Mr Justice Eady also withheld information about a Toronto bank which was germane to the case. Had the jury not found in favour of Mr Bower, Mr Thwaites would have used this omission as grounds for appeal.
These apparent weaknesses on the part of Mr Justice Eady are noteworthy given that he is one of two High Court judges who preside in cases involving the media, and has single-handedly - and controversially - extended rights of privacy under the Human Rights Act.
One case does not ruin a judge, but the conduct of this case has not strengthened the reputation of Mr Justice Eady.