The hacking dividend

This scandal has caused severe damage to our press. But if proper action is taken quickly, some good may come of it

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable