Eight months after it began at the Old Bailey, the phone-hacking trial reached a partial conclusion yesterday afternoon. We have known for some time – as the result of guilty pleas by former journalists in earlier trials – that the interception of mobile phone messages was once a frequent practice at the News of the World. Nonetheless, the fact that Andy Coulson, a former editor of the paper and one-time spokesman for the Prime Minister, has been convicted of conspiracy to hack phones is hugely significant.
By the same token, it is momentous that Rebekah Brooks, another former editor of the title, has been acquitted of all charges she faced. Along with four others, she has walked free. The jury has yet to return verdicts in relation to charges against Mr Coulson and Clive Goodman in respect of making payments to public officials for information.
There have always been some who argued that the cost of the police investigation and the legal proceedings – running into many millions of pounds – was disproportionate when set against the nature of the allegations being tested in this trial. They may be emboldened by the fact that several of the defendants have now been found not guilty.
Irespective of the trial’s outcome, this has been a crucial episode in the history of the British press. For it has demonstrated beyond all doubt that newspaper editors, however powerful, are not beyond the reach of a judicial process which should show neither fear nor favour.
Events must be set in context
In some senses it is remarkable that we are considering today’s verdicts in 2014 when the original admissions of guilt over phone-hacking by Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were made as long ago as 2006. Yet the recent proceedings have to be set in the context of a much longer and more complex sequence of events – a sequence that has yet fully to play out. The arrests of Mulcaire, the rogue investigator, and Goodman, the not so ‘single rogue reporter’ were just the beginning.
Protestations from the News International corner that Goodman was a random bad apple were long and loud. The Metropolitan Police, which had the resources to investigate, and the Press Complaints Commission, which frankly did not, were initially unable to shed any additional light on the hacking culture. It was left to other newspapers, including The Independent, to shine torches into dark places.
In the end Rupert Murdoch himself drove the “Screws” into a coffin. The Prime Minister, with rare all-party support, ordered a judicial inquiry under the auspices of Lord Justice Leveson. That inquiry was not without its flaws and its focus was on ethical practices, rather than allegations of criminality. Yet it painted a clear and damning picture of a newspaper industry in which some elements rode roughshod over the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people alike. For some journalists the boundaries of ethical and legal conduct appeared blurred at best and at worst non-existent.
What Leveson documented too was that the press had held excessive sway over politicians of every hue in this country. Relationships between newspapermen and police officers had also become unhealthily entwined. This nexus of influence and intrigue has been slowly dismantled over the last eight years. It took too long but, then, it was a web that had been decades in the spinning.
Behaviour has improved
So what comes next? First, we await the verdicts on the remaining counts against Andy Coulson and those against Clive Goodman, which all relate to conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office. More trials against other individuals may follow in due course.
But it is important to consider the broader picture too. There is no doubt that press behaviour has improved as a result of the hacking scandal and the dishonour it spawned. The fact that a new system of self-regulation does not follow every one of Leveson’s proposals and has yet to gain the universal support of the newspaper industry does not mean it won’t ultimately raise standards further. The Independent has not yet signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation. IPSO must show its mettle.
Regulation, however, has always been something of a red herring. Journalists must understand and obey the law. They must also adhere to codes of accepted practice. But more than that, the media must accept that its role in society, while vital, does not give it the right to ride roughshod over the bounds of common decency. Nor should politicians, pop stars and the public feel always that newspapers exist only to be feared. (There is some self-interest in this wish, because media freedoms are more readily protected by policy-makers when journalists behave responsibly. And as we have seen in Egypt this week, media freedom is precious).
We should not lose sight of the fact that the power of the media has troubled great minds for generations. The over-exertion of publishers’ clout is not a new phenomenon. As Oscar Wilde put it in 1891: “In old days men had the rack, now they have the press. Somebody – was it Burke – called journalism the fourth estate...At the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three...”
But the process which led to the closure of a newspaper, to a judicial inquiry and to the appearance in the dock of the supreme editors of their day may finally have re-balanced the equation. For the good of all, that sense of greater equilibrium must be retained.