The phone-hacking scandal started out as a story affecting the rich and the famous, and therefore of little relevance to the general public. Then came the revelations that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, as had the phones of the relatives of war casualties, the murdered Soham girls and 7/7casualties. Suddenly it became a scandal of how news is gathered, one which could have touched any family, and there was a wave of national revulsion at what Nick Clegg called the “fundamentally corrupted relationship between politics, the media, and the police.”
News International thought that the surest way to distract people was to create a compelling diversion. Closing the News of the World was intended to hold off criticism, but it was never going to be enough, and the fall-out continues. The Metropolitan Police have questions to answer over shelving an investigation that they should have pursued vigorously. They failed to tell thousands of people whose names appeared in the books of a private investigator that their phones might have been hacked. Their excuse was that they were far too busy with other matters – particularly terrorist plots – to plough through the mountain of documents they had recovered in the sketchy first enquiry. Perhaps they should have handed the lot over to Wikileaks for analysis. It would seem that the police were afraid of endangering their cosy relationship with the Murdoch papers. More seriously, some police were corruptly paid by the Murdoch press.
David Cameron made an astonishing statement on Wednesday when he admitted that the relationship between media executives and the politicians had become unhealthy. He said: “It was too close. Too much time was spent courting the media and not enough time confronting the problems.” Margaret Thatcher was the last Prime Minister who didn’t give a toss about the media. Since then it has been a sorry catalogue. Kingmaker Murdoch saw off Neil Kinnock, John Major and Gordon Brown, while ensuring the coronation of Tony Blair and David Cameron. No wonder there was a climate of fear, a reluctance to take on the power of the tabloids which used illegal intrusions into privacy to sell newspapers and to secure political influence. Even Tony Blair was eventually moved to castigate the “feral beast” of the media.
One politician who did not cosy up to the Murdoch empire was Vince Cable. As business secretary he had legal responsibility for deciding whether to accept any Competition Commission decision that a takeover of BSkyB could go ahead. Then last December he was caught by a ‘Telegraph’ sting when he revealed his true feelings. He told the undercover reporters: “And I don’t know if you have been following what has been happening with the Murdoch press, where I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win…His [Murdoch's] whole empire is now under attack…” He lost his BSkyB role for his indiscretion and was considered lucky to hang on to his cabinet post. But who would argue with his judgement now. On Wednesday Rupert Murdoch capitulated to parliament and abandoned News Corporation’s £8bn bid for BSkyB. So a celebratory lap of honour in the Cable household would be in order.
Also on Wednesday David Cameron performed another U-turn and announced a sweeping public inquiry, to be presided over by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, into widespread lawbreaking by the press, alleged corruption by police, and the failure of the initial police investigation into phone hacking. The inquiry will also look at a new system of independent regulation of the press and the potentially critical issue of future cross-ownership between press and television stations. So that’s alright then.
Or is it? Inquiries under The Inquiries Act 2005 can still be subject to ministerial interference on the relevance of evidence and even the terms of reference. They also grind exceedingly slow. No results are promised in under a year. The danger is that, once the initial outrage has passed, and the general public is otherwise distracted by such as the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games, we will again settle for half-measures, half-implemented, as happened with the impulse for constitutional reform that came out of the parliamentary expenses scandal.
Photo courtesy of bisgovuk