It is not often that The Independent on Sunday defends Rupert Murdoch. And that is not exactly what we are doing today. Mr Murdoch’s British newspapers were guilty of reprehensible and illegal intrusions into people’s private lives. News International paid a price, not just in cash compensation for their victims, but in the closure of the News of the World and in damage to its corporate reputation. It is not over yet: many journalists and their police contacts are still under investigation.
However, we want to comment on a double standard. We and our sister newspaper, The Independent, have reported that the illegal techniques used by Mr Murdoch’s and other newspapers were also used by law firms, insurance companies and telecoms businesses. The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) has investigated private detectives engaged in the theft of personal information. But while some of this criminal activity was for media clients, most of it was for other companies.
Yet, while the press was subjected to a public inquiry, headed by Lord Justice Leveson, and to a belated full-scale police investigation, Soca refuses to identify these other alleged customers of hackers, blaggers and thieves.
Sir Ian Andrews, the agency’s chairman, wrote a remarkable letter to Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, this month, in which he explained why Soca would not disclose the information: “Given the lack of certainty over guilty knowledge on the part of [the] clients, and the impact that any publication might have on those named (recognising the requirement for public authorities to have respect for individuals’ private and family life under the Human Rights Act 1998), together with the possible prejudice which any publication might have on ongoing criminal investigations and future regulatory action, the list of … clients which Soca has created following your request has been formally classified.” Later, he wrote that publication might “substantially undermine the financial viability of major organisations by tainting them with public association with criminality”.
Sir Ian’s arguments are unconvincing, and his citing of the Human Rights Act is frankly ludicrous. Of course, it would be damaging to the companies concerned for it to be known that they are being or have been investigated, but if they have not been “associated with criminality”, then let them account for themselves. The privilege of a shroud of secrecy over police investigations to protect the share price has not been extended to newspapers, whether owned by Mr Murdoch or not, as the arrests, investigations and court cases in the hacking scandal proceed.
Openness is an essential principle of the criminal justice system in a free society. The right to anonymity in law is rightly restricted to the victims of certain sexual offences and to cases where a judge has made a specific order. Sir Ian should reconsider his decision, or Parliament might well reconsider it for him. The companies concerned should have nothing to fear from fair reporting of the facts. If they have been investigated by Soca, it is up to them to explain that they have not knowingly employed private investigators to engage in criminal activity on their behalf.
In October, the unloved Soca will be merged into a new National Crime Agency. Let us hope this change of name will signify a change in the organisation’s culture, so that it sees openness as a means of fighting crime and not a distraction from it.