Chris Bryant: There must be no impunity

Did the hush money and 'deliberate thwarting' of the police hacking investigation add up to a perversion of the course of justice?

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The Independent Online

Getting away with it, that seemed to be the name of the game in the recent riots. The youngsters did it because they reckoned they could get away with it.

Exactly the same could be said of the systematic hacking of phones at the News of the World – and of the costly subsequent cover-up. They did it because they could and because they thought that even if they were caught they'd pretty much get away with it.

Partly, that was because they reckoned that the newspapers' code of honour would hold. No editor would run a story about illegal practices at another newspaper for fear of starting a war of mutual destruction.

They also presumed on the indifference of the British people – something that was blown apart by the revelation that Milly Dowler's phone was hacked – and on the complacency or complicity of the Metropolitan Police.

They also assumed that cowed and cowering politicians wouldn't dare to inquire into the dark arts of journalists lest they inquire into our private lives.

It all now seems like utter hubris of course. Surely they must have known that this edifice of assumptions would come crashing down and it would all come out in the end? I suspect not. For a start it is starting to look as if they had a pretty cunning, although expensive plan, clause one of which was to buy everyone's silence. Investigator Glenn Mulcaire's legal fees were met, Clive Goodman, the jailed royal correspondent, got £250,000, and according to Goodman, any discussion of the matter was banned from editorial meetings. The fly in the ointment was the fact that just a few victims of hacking had already been notified by the police and decided to take civil actions. So they too had to be paid off.

It is clear that News International's payment to Gordon Taylor was intended to buy his silence. Frankly it always defied belief to suggest any other explanation. After all, even if Murdoch was right in saying that his lawyers told him that the court was likely to award upwards of £200,000 in damages for breach of Taylor's privacy, all News International need have offered him was a tad over that figure. If he had gone to court and the court had awarded him the same or less, Taylor would have had to pay News International's legal fees. That's how the court works. So either News International had incompetent lawyers or the extra half a million was hush money buying a tough confidentiality clause to prevent it coming out that many more people at the News of the World had been involved.

Another part of the cover-up strategy seems to have been to pretend that Harbottle and Lewis had given News International a clean bill of health on hacking and any other misdemeanours. As of this week, we know that this was never the case. We have also been told now that the central tenet of the cover-up was a lie. Indeed Goodman himself had written that the myth of him as the lone rogue reporter was nonsense, in a letter that the company thought so incriminating, sections of it had to be struck through in heavy black pen in the copy they provided to the Commons media committee. It's a particularly quaint irony to see a newspaper redact material for MPs after the recent battle over redacted expenses.

We know all this now. But the frightening fact is the cover-up strategy very nearly worked. They did nearly get away with it. So where does the new information leave us? I presume there will be police charges soon, for phone hacking, conspiring to have phones hacked and paying police officers. There may also be charges in the US against News Corp, at least in relation to bribing British officials. But the biggest question is whether the hush money, the deliberate evasions, the public lies and private contrivances and the "deliberate thwarting" of the police investigation add up to a deliberate attempt to pervert the course of justice. If so, very senior figures at News International could be facing long stretches in prison, as well as losing broadcasting licences and being barred as company directors.

We also have to see this in the round, though. For if we are to stand a chance of tackling the general sense of impunity in society, we need to make sure those involved in the original criminality at News International, and those who deliberately covered it up, don't get away with it. That includes politicians who deliberately and culpably turned a blind eye, averring they wanted to give someone a "second chance". Either they really thought that a crime committed by a friend somehow didn't matter, or they were so keen to ingratiate themselves with the dominant media player that they never did due diligence. Ignorance, stupidity and poverty are not defences in law, but credulity or casual indifference to lawbreaking at the top are no better.

Staff at the News of the World have lost their jobs, but the responsibility really lies at the top of the company. The police must now consider very seriously whether charges need to be brought against the Murdochs themselves. As onTwitter friend put it "James Murdoch and his dodgy dealings. I blame the parents." Let's not let them get away with it.

Chris Bryant is a Labour MP

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