Deborah Orr: Why is it so hard to prove the obvious?

Saturday 11 July 2009 00:00 BST

It's a weird old society indeed when the huge stories that are hardest to break are the ones that everybody knows are true anyway. First, it was the bankers.

Worries about the consumer credit boom, or aggressive logic-defying takeovers, or offshore tax evasion, or "the bonus culture" barely raised an eyebrow, until the improbable ziggurat came crashing to the ground. Next, there came the politicians, whose expenses gravy train, when it was finally derailed, surprised journalists not at all, and other people mainly in the grim hilarity of its detail, and the self-righteous denial of its most spectacular miscreants.

Now, it's the turn of the newspapers, with The Guardian's reports of endemic criminal corruption in the news-gathering techniques of The Sun and News of the World seemingly of little interest to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, or even the police – even though News International has already spent £1m on keeping three of the victims of its techniques quiet. There is not, apparently, "enough proof". When did the bleeding obvious become so hard to prove?

David Cameron thinks it's all such a bore that he employed as his communications chief Andy Coulson, pictured below, the man who had resigned as editor of the News of the World, after admitting that he had presided over the publication of stories obtained by such methods. Coulson (and Cameron) maintains that he is "innocent" because he did not know how his employee was obtaining the information his editor published. But all journalists know that this is impossible, unless Coulson was either an astoundingly lazy and incurious boss or was operating a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Almost everyone else in the print media, it seems, apart from Andrew Neil, who has been splendidly vociferous in his condemnations, thinks such dereliction of duty is fine. Nobody expects News International's four national newspapers to be crawling all over the story, for obvious reasons. But The Daily Telegraph too has steered clear of the Coulson angle, presumably out of deference to its own good relations with Coulson and Cameron. And the Daily Mail is well known to be quite keen on similar techniques to News International's.

Plenty of media figures are characterising the story as being motivated by the ambitions of a bitter liberal rag that wants to damage Cameron and Murdoch, with only the bitter liberal BBC keeping it company. What are they really saying? That a story suggesting widespread collusion between journalists, private investigators, the police, and public services holding sensitive personal data should not be touched because it damages important people that they like? That is, unbelievably, exactly what they are saying, quite openly. When did people in positions of responsibility and trust start believing they were above the law, or even the moral codes that the rest of us are expected to live by? The answer has to be: "When they discovered that they were."

Cameron hired Coulson because it looked as if News International had brushed the initial story under the carpet. Caught red-handed bugging the phones of the royals, journalist Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire had been tried and sent to jail. Coulson's resignation, at the very least, was an admission that he couldn't keep a newsroom legal and decent. Since he didn't know of any mistakes he had made, he couldn't have learned from them. Why did Cameron believe this sort of record was not troubling in a prospective employee? Why does he still think it's not a problem?

One of the most interesting things about The Guardian's story is that the paper is not publishing many of the details it has uncovered and knows to be true. It has chapter and verse on many journalists at News International, who employed illegal methods to obtain or try to obtain material. But if it publishes those names, then the people ultimately responsible for the behaviour of staff will simply sack them, mouthing nonsensical platitudes about their shock, their upset, and their outrage.

Those who did the dirty work may even end up in prison, like Clive Goodman did, while those who profited from that dirty work will give their hands a quick wash, then show everyone how clean their mitts are. What's really grotesque about this story is that it illustrates that those in charge needn't even wash their hands, because so many people feel justified in asserting that all they can smell is good, honest soap anyway.

Poor Emma should have been told – not snapped

Once, many years ago, I had an oddly remarkable day, during which I kept encountering women who were wandering around with their skirts inadvertently tucked into their pants. It happened thrice, which I'm sure has to be a record. Every time, I informed the woman of her "wardrobe malfunction" and every time she was pathetic in her gratitude. Goodness, I felt appreciated, even loved. I began to wonder if this was what I'd been put on earth to do.

During the premiere of the latest Harry Potter film, 19-year-old Emma Watson, left, got her dress soaked in the rain, and accidentally displayed her knickers. Instead of pointing out her problem, of course, people took photographs of her, and sold them for publication. Watson laughed it off, quipping on David Letterman's show the next night that at least she had been sporting underwear. But I still think that in a kinder, less prurient, world, the pants-flash would have been quietly and decorously rectified.

On the beat, off the scent

Ah, the informal society. The police paid a visit the other day. Did we have a key to the flat next door? They'd been alerted by a panic alarm, and were about to break in. "No, no, no need for that," we said. "Joyce is out. Her car's not here. She's probably over at Barbara's. Mary upstairs has the key. But she's at work."

What was Barbara's second name, so that the police could get in touch? We didn't know. What was Mary's then? We didn't know that either. Then we remembered that Mary was friendly with Thomas, who was friendly with John. We had John's number, so we could phone John, to get Thomas's number, to get Mary's, to see if she had Barbara's. First-name terms – they're sometimes a bit of a mouthful. But the door's still in its frame.

No one in our locale can say the police aren't busy, though. There's huge excitement in south London, as Operation Navara sweeps through Lambeth, raiding the homes of gangsters and seizing their "weapon dogs". This week's raids saw no fewer than 12 addresses being targeted. A "status dog unit" has apparently been in operation since March, and has taken 273 dogs across London in that time. Bloody hell. If the police hung around in our local parks for a day, throwing balls to pekes, they could manage 273 weapon dogs in 24 hours. People actually seems to believe that they are being public-spirited when they tell you that you'd better pick your dog up or else their dog will tear its throat out. Obviously one is too terrified to explain that their advice constitutes threatening behaviour.

And anyway, alongside the leaflets about responsible animal ownership, you can pick up muscle-building powder, specially formulated for dogs, at the local vet. The law might say no to dangerous dogs (in its fantastically stupid way), but the market says: "Yes, absolutely. Grow your own weapon dog if you want to, as big and hard and strong as you wish it to be."


In truth, the Coulson-Cameron issue is a sideshow in itself, and Coulson's resignation from his job with Cameron, though likely, is still scapegoating. The real scandal is lack of journalistic integrity, and lack of contrition when it's uncovered. The degree to which that failure is tolerated is as obvious in the wider coverage of this investigation as it is in the criminal infringements of privacy that the investigation centres on. And for what? Gossip, mainly.

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