Saturday, 4 September 2010

News of the World and the scalp hunt

It would be a pity if the News of the World phone hacking scandal reduced itself to a hunt for Andy Coulson's scalp.

That's not to say Mr Coulson doesn't have many questions to answer - he does. But so do NewsCorp's management, the Metropolitan Police and the Press Complaints Commission. And arguably, their (selective) inaction in the face of criminal activity is at least as reprehensible as anything Mr Coulson is alleged to have done.

The NotW scandal brings into crisp focus all of the questions about the British press that make it one of the least trusted in the world. Not least the fact that it took an American paper, the New York Times, to mount and publish a proper investigation that finally got people to sit up and take notice.

The British press - with the egregious exception of Nick Davies et al at the Guardian - has been criminally silent. It is impossible to imagine that they would have held their tongue so tightly if this scandal had been about a government department or the nuclear industry.

Andy Coulson is, for all sorts of obvious but unsatisfactory reasons, the chief target. Some of the NotW's victims would relish the prospect of landing a blow on David Cameron - whose press chief Mr Coulson is. The danger is that such an outcome - which would then move the story on to the PM's "judgment" - would leave unexamined stuff that is very, very whiffy indeed.

And we should remember that when Andy Coulson's defenders tell us these new, damning allegations are coming from an unreliable source, they are from a journalist Mr Coulson was, for a time at least, perfectly happy to have working on his staff. And when they tell us that last year's Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee could find no evidence that Mr Coulson knew about routine phone hacking ... they're only telling us part of the story.

A story that's worth reminding ourselves of - or, if your main news source is a NewsCorp title, reading for the first time since those titles virtually ignored the select committee's report when it was published, and wholly ignored any criticisms in it of NewsCorp's obstructive management.

"No evidence"

Let's start with that 'no evidence that Andy Coulson knew' illegal phone hacking was a routine newsgathering technique on his paper - which it was - and that Clive Goodman, who went to jail, was a "rogue".

Here's what the committee says:

439. We have seen no evidence that Andy Coulson knew that phone-hacking was taking place.

Ok ... that seems clear enough. Except;

... that such hacking took place reveals a serious management failure for which as editor he bore ultimate responsibility, and we believe that he was correct to accept this and resign.

And as if to help us judge the veracity of Mr Coulson's assurance that he knew nothing, the committee reminds us:

431. Mr Coulson also said he had "never read a Gordon Taylor story, to the best of my recollection" although, as we have been told, it was Mr Coulson who spiked the story.

Hmmm ... Anyhow, the committee goes on.

440. Evidence we have seen makes it inconceivable that no-one else at the News of the World, bar Clive Goodman, knew about the phone-hacking. It is unlikely, for instance, that Ross Hindley (later Hall) did not know the source of the material he was transcribing and was not acting on instruction from superiors. We cannot believe that the newspaper's newsroom was so out of control for this to be the case.

441. The idea that Clive Goodman was a "rogue reporter" acting alone is also directly contradicted by the Judge who presided at the Goodman and Mulcaire trial. In his summing up, Mr Justice Gross, the presiding judge, said of Glenn Mulcaire: "As to Counts 16 to 20 [relating to the phone-hacking of Max Clifford, Simon Hughes MP, Andrew Skylett, Elle Macpherson and Gordon Taylor], you had not dealt with Goodman but with others at News International."

All of which makes the testimony of Sean Hoare, to both the New York Times and the BBC R4 PM programme, feel a bit like one piece of the jigsaw the select committee couldn't put its finger on.

The big question, though, always was about the apparent failure of NewsCorp, the Met or the PCC to take NotW's routine illegal phone hacking as seriously as it warranted. Yes, there were the prosecutions over the royal phones ... but as we know, those weren't the only victims of this criminal activity.

Here's what the committee says about this - there's a lot of it, but it's worth reading in full:

442. Despite this, there was no further investigation of who those "others" might be and we are concerned at the readiness of all of those involved: News International, the police and the PCC to leave Mr Goodman as the sole scapegoat without carrying out a full investigation at the time. The newspaper's enquiries were far from 'full' or 'rigorous', as we - and the PCC - had been assured. Throughout our inquiry, too, we have been struck by the collective amnesia afflicting witnesses from the News of the World.

449. The News of the World and its parent companies did not initially volunteer the existence of pay-offs to Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire ...

the private investigator who worked with Clive Goodman and others

... and their evidence has been contradictory. We do not know the amounts, or terms, but we are left with a strong impression that silence has been bought.

455. Gordon Taylor was cited in one of the charges over which Glenn Mulcaire was convicted in 2007. In the civil action, however, the News of the World nonetheless initially resisted the claim, and on a false basis. We consider there was nothing to prevent the newspaper group drafting its confidentiality agreement to allow the PCC and this Committee to be informed of these events, so as to avoid, at the very least, the appearance of having misled us both. We also believe that confidentiality in the Taylor case, and the size of the settlement and sealing of the files, reflected a desire to avoid further embarrassing publicity to the News of the World.

467. In 2006 the Metropolitan Police made a considered choice, based on available resources, not to investigate either the holding contract between Greg Miskiw and Glenn Mulcaire, or the 'for Neville' email. We have been told that choice was endorsed by the CPS. Nevertheless it is our view that the decision was a wrong one. The email was a strong indication both of additional lawbreaking and of the possible involvement of others. These matters merited thorough police investigation, and the first steps to be taken seem to us to have been obvious. The Metropolitan Police's reasons for not doing so seem to us to be inadequate.

472. We accept that in 2007 the PCC acted in good faith to follow up the implications of the convictions of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. The Guardian's fresh revelations in July 2009, however, provided good reason for the PCC to be more assertive in its enquiries, rather than accepting submissions from the News of the World one again at face value. This Committee has not done so and we find the conclusions in the PCC's November report simplistic and surprising. It has certainly not fully, or forensically, considered all the evidence to this inquiry.

It's hard to fault the select committee's reasoning and conclusions - hard, too, not to feel their frustration at being blocked at every turn in trying to get at the truth.

And that's why this scandal shouldn't be allowed to slide into obscure memory the moment someone is able to hang Andy Coulson's bloodied scalp from their belt.

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