Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Scum Also Rises. And, Hopefully, Falls

The fastest-moving media story of 2011 spent the majority of Tuesday 5 July travelling at virtual warp-speed. And, tragically, it wasn't a victimless affair. The parents of the murdered Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman have, reportedly, been visited by police investigating phone-hacking by News of the World journalists. It had already been alleged that an investigator working for the News of the World hacked the phone of the murdered Milly Dowler when she was missing. News International has promised the 'strongest possible action' if it is proven that Milly's phone was hacked. MPs will hold an emergency debate on Wednesday on the phone-hacking scandal. Jessica and Holly, both aged just ten, were murdered in August 2002 by school caretaker Ian Huntley, who was subsequently jailed for life. The Gruniad Morning Star has claimed that private investigator Glenn Mulcaire - working for the News of the World - intercepted messages left by relatives for thirteen-year-old Milly Dowler while she was missing earlier in 2002. The Gruniad alleged that the News of the World deleted some messages which it had already listened to in order to make space for more to be left. Milly went missing in March 2002 near her home in Walton-on-Thames. Her remains were subsequently found in remote woodland at Yateley Heath in Hampshire six months later. Nightclub doorman Levi Bellfield was convicted of the murder last month. The motor company Ford has announced a halt on advertising in the News of the World, pending the newspaper's investigation and response over the phone-hacking claims. 'Ford is a company which cares about the standards of behaviour of its own people and those it deals with externally,' it said in a statement. The energy company Npower and the Halifax bank have also announced they are 'considering their options' regarding advertising with the News of the World. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow granted the urgent debate on the possibility of a public inquiry following a call by Labour MP Chris Bryant, who accused the News of the World of 'playing God with a family's emotions.' In the upper house, the former Conservative Party Chairman Lord Fowler said that an inquiry was 'needed' in the wake of 'one of the biggest scandals affecting the press in living memory.' Home Office minister Baroness Browning said, cowardly, that the government would await the outcome of the police investigation before deciding whether further action was necessary. But, that decision might be taken out of their hands as the public reaction to these outraged effectively changes the story by the minute. As the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson noted yesterday, the allegations have effectively 'changed the character, if not the nature, of the hacking saga' and 'moved many in Westminster who previously regarded the story as a question of interest only to those excited by media ethics or the privacy of celebrities.' He added: 'News International executives insist that they were as shocked as anyone else when they learned that Milly Dowler's phone had apparently been hacked. The official consultation into whether Rupert Murdoch's News Corp should be permitted to take over BSkyB closes this week. Aides to the culture secretary say that, legally, his only consideration can be the impact on what's called "media plurality" - in other words the impact on the number of different media voices. The question of whether Mr Murdoch or his company are - in the jargon - "fit and proper persons" to take full ownership of the broadcaster cannot now, they say, be added to the process. That won't stop critics pointing to the fact that the editor of the News of the World at the time of these allegations, Rebekah Brooks, is now chief executive of News International (News Corporation's main UK subsidiary) and a personal friend of the prime minister. For a long time the hacking story united those who'd always been hostile to the Murdoch empire with those angered by its switch from backing New Labour to supporting the Tories, and those who saw it as a way to damage David Cameron (who hired the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his spin doctor). Now Murdoch, Brooks and Cameron will be aware that for the first time the hacking story may be engaging and horrifying readers, viewers and voters.' For Cameron, the News of the World scandal is tremendously difficult. His close friendship with Rebekah Brooks no longer looks like such an asset as it did last year during the general election.
Also on Wednesday, the Media Standards Trust - which aims to promote high news standards within the media - will launch the cross-party Hacked Off campaign calling for a public inquiry into 'phone hacking and other forms of illegal intrusion by the press.' Hacked Off, a campaign supported by Lord Fowler, Lord Prescott,  Labour MP Chris Bryant, Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders and the Dowlers' lawyer, Mark Lewis among many others, has started an online petition calling for a full public inquiry. The police are already investigating allegations over phone-hacking by detectives working for the News of the World, but the group described this as 'too narrowly focused.' In a statement, Hacked Off said: 'Even if there are prosecutions, they will concern themselves only with specific cases and individuals. Without an inquiry most of the evidence will stay secret and the wider story of illegal information-gathering and the official response to it will never be told.' Labour MPs gave overwhelming support to Bryant's motion for a parliamentary debate into whether there should be a full public inquiry into the News of the World phone hacking scandal and the related conduct of the Metropolitan police. Calling for the emergency debate, Bryant - giving one of the finest speeches heard in the Commons for some time - said that those responsible at News of the World should be 'truly ashamed' and that the newspaper could no longer 'pretend that this comes as a massive surprise to them' having repeatedly lied over the extent of phone hacking in the past.' Large numbers of Labour MPs stood up to support Bryant's call, along with a smattering of Liberal Democrats and some Tory backbenchers such as Zac Goldsmith and Bill Cash. Ministers present in the Commons chamber opposed the emergency debate but, in what will be seen as another show of force by the Speaker John Bercow, he accepted arguments in favour put by Bryant.

News International chief executive and, well-known Crystal Tipps-lookalike Rebekah Brooks has promised 'the strongest possible action' if allegations that the News of the World hacked into Milly Dowler's phone are 'proved true,' while pressure mounts on her to resign from her position from several different angles. Brooks said in a statement that the Milly Dowler claims made by the Gruniad Morning Star were 'almost too horrific to believe' and promised to 'act' if they are proven. 'If the allegations are proved to be true I can promise the strongest possible action,' she said. 'I am sickened that these events are alleged to have happened.' Milly Dowler's family have reacted with shock and disgust to the hacking allegations, and pledged to pursue News International, parent company to the News of the World, for compensation. Lawyers representing the family claim that the alleged hacking dated back to the time when Brooks was the editor of the News of the World. Senior executives at News International discussed the Dowler revelations at a meeting with police on Tuesday morning to talk about Scotland Yard's ongoing investigation into phone hacking. News International said that Brooks was not present at the meeting. Brooks - who now heads up News International - said: 'It is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned, these appalling actions.' Writing on his blog before the e-mail was made public, the BBC's business editor Robert Peston said that Brooks was expected to tell staff that she was 'deeply shocked' by the claims, but would insist that she 'knew nothing' about phone hacking at the newspaper. Later, he added: 'She disclosed that she has written to the family of Milly Dowler, pledging to vigorously investigate the allegations that the News of the World hacked into the murdered teenager's mobile phone - and to communicate the results of the investigation to them before anyone else.' Peston continued: 'Its executives tell me they are not contesting the basic facts, as set out in yesterday's online story in the Guardian. "We are working on the assumption that it is basically true", said one. "We have learned a good deal more about this from our own enquiries overnight."' Peston, however, claimed that Brooks will resist pressure on her to resign and quoted 'an unnamed News International executive' as saying that Murdoch 'is backing [Brooks] one hundred per cent.' Weak-as-pisswater opposition leader Ed Milimolimandi - taking a few moments off from criticising trade unions for exercising their perfectly legal right to withhold their labour if they disagree with their terms and conditions of employment - had said that Brooks should 'consider her conscience' and 'consider her position.' Milimolimandi seemingly just couldn't wait to jump on the bandwagon before it rolled out of town and also said that the latest revelations in the News of the World phone-hacking controversy are 'a stain' on journalism in this country. He called for a full investigation into news reporting in light of the situation. One's currently going on, Ed. It's called Operation Weeting. The business secretary Vince Cable refused to talk about individuals, but added: 'There are a lot of people who have to examine their consciences. It's an appalling state of affairs.' The lack of culture secretary, the vile and odious rascal Hunt, predictably, said nothing of any interest. The Labour MP Tom Watson, a constant thorn in the side of News International over this story, said there had been 'a failure of political leadership' over phone-hacking, with senior politicians of all sides not acting quickly enough to investigate the problem. He told the BBC: 'There have been plenty of hints to Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron that something very murky happened with Glen Mulcaire and the News of the World newsroom. They have let the Dowler family down by not calling for an inquiry. It's time they acted. And that's the biggest scandal of the lot. Politicians are frightened of News International.' Speaking in Afghanistan, Cameron himself - who has so far avoided making virtually any public comment on the alleged criminal activities of a newspaper edited during the period of the alleged hacking by one of his best friends and, then, by his former communications director - said: 'On the question of the really appalling allegations about the telephone of Milly Dowler, if they are true, this is a truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation. What I have read in the papers is quite, quite shocking, that someone could do this actually knowing that the police were trying to find this person and trying to find out what had happened, and we all now know the tragedy that took place.' There is of course an uncomfortable feedback loop from the latest disclosures of alleged hacking directly to number ten - in that the deputy editor of the News of the World in 2002 was Andy Coulson, who became editor in 2003, and who also served as Cameron's communications director until he resigned in January. Coulson will now be pressed to disclose whether he was aware of the alleged interception and deletion of voicemail messages left on Milly Dowler's phone. And, if not, why not? What the hell was he doing to justify his existence in his job? As Robert Peston notes in his blog: 'Some will say that [Coulson] and Rebekah Brooks are damned if they did knew and damned if they didn't - in that as the most senior editors of the News of the World, they should have made enquiries about how sensitive information was obtained.' Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson declined to comment on the ongoing police inquiry into phone-hacking but said he was 'appalled' by the latest allegations.

The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Baroness Buscombe, defended the body's actions - or, lack of them - over the phone-hacking allegations. Two years ago the PCC published a report following allegations made by the Gruniad that it was misled by the News of the World during an inquiry into phone hacking at the paper which it conducted in 2007. At the time, Buscombe put out a statement pouring considerable scorn on the Gruniad's claims and arguing that: 'Having reviewed all the information available, we concluded that we were not materially misled.' She told BBC2's Daily Politics that she was 'angry' the PCC had been misled by the News of the World and added: 'There's only so much we can do when people are lying to us.' Which is as good as saying that you and the PCC serve no earthly purpose whatsoever, in that case, yer actual ladyness. Facing a combative presenter, former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, Buscombe became agitated and was forced to deny that she had 'sided' with the tabloid newspaper. When Neil accused Buscombe of doing just that, she interrupted him, saying, 'I didn't.' Buscombe refused to be drawn further on specifics, literally squirming on the sofa as she admitted that she was angry with the newspaper. She went on: 'My answer to this is the PCC takes all of this incredibly seriously. I'm seeing all the publishers and proprietors, I'm deeply unhappy with what happened.' After Neil repeatedly asked her to name 'one useful thing' which the PCC has done over the issue, Buscombe said: 'What I'm saying is we've beefed up our sanctions, we're making more demands, I've demanded to see all the proprietors.' Yeah, that's useful. So, that'd be nothing useful, then? Neil also questioned the role of the PCC in the scandal, asking: 'Have you exposed any of the phone hacking?' Buscombe responded: 'We had one complaint about phone hacking which was withdrawn.' Neil suggested that after the PCC 'played no part' in bringing about the phone hacking revelations that the newspaper industry should be subject to statutory regulation. She replied: 'All I will say is that I think we have to be very careful about newspaper industry that's regulated by the state.' Which is a valid argument but, since the self-regulation as practiced by the PCC had manifestly failed to curb gross excesses of the kind this case, and others, have highlighted then maybe it is time for a few bits of legislation. Buscombe refused to go into the issue of the PCC reaching a settlement with the lawyer Mark Lewis after he sued the press watchdog for libel. It is understood that the PCC paid Lewis an undisclosed amount of damages over comments which Buscombe made about how many people reportedly had their voicemails intercepted.

The hacking affair has caused 'apoplexy' in the top-most echelons of the Daily Scum Mail and General Trust according to the Gruniad. The Scum Mail owner's chairman, Lord Rothermere, according to Gruniad columnist Roy Greenslade, was 'so appalled' at the story that he asked the Scum Mail's editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, whether any of his editorial staff were involved in such heinous activities. Evidently, Rothermere was delighted to receive an unequivocal assurance from Dacre that the Scum Mail has never done anything so disgusting. The Scum Mail titles might have employed the services of private investigators in the past but 'there was not the slightest shred of evidence that any of them got up to News of the World-style activities,' Greenslade suggests. Whether he was being ironic or not, this blogger genuinely couldn't tell. 'Rothermere, a diffident and mild-mannered chap, thought the hacking into Milly Dowler's phone to be beyond the pale. It was, he is reported to have said, "shoddy and unethical journalism." In a message to senior executives, he registered his concern about its possible ill-effects on the press as a whole, worrying over the possibility of people accusing the Mail of doing the same. "Please make sure that if anyone accuses the Daily Mail of this that you correct them," he concluded.'

The actor Hugh Grant has alleged that the News of the World's private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was 'specifically told to hack' murdered Milly Dowler's phone. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Grant recalled how he had bugged ex-News of the World journalist Paul McMullan last year to discuss the phone hacking scandal. In a transcript of the secretly-recorded conversation which was published by the New Statesman, Grant asked McMullan if it was true that John Yates, then acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had been asked about the possible hacking by a parliamentary committee. According to the transcript, McMullan responded: 'Yeah. It's more than likely. It was quite routine. Yeah – friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.' Grant told BBC Radio's Victoria Derbyshire: 'It was pretty revealing and one of the things he did talk about, was that he was pretty sure that the family and friends of Milly Dowler, and in fact of the girls murdered at Soham, had been hacked by the News of the World.' Offering his thoughts on the alleged hacking, Grant said that 'like everyone' he found it to be 'beyond repulsive. The part that [is] particular scary is not just that this was a national newspaper that [was] doing this, but it's the ramifications, it's the parts of this story that are yet fully to come out, which are; how many newspapers were using phone hacking on a widespread and industrial basis? Because it was not, I can assure you, just the News of the World. Equally scary, the apparent collusion of parts of the Metropolitan Police - we already know because Rebekah Wade [now Brooks] has admitted this, something she now regrets admitting - that the News of the World was often paying off Metropolitan Police officers. Money changed hands. So the police involvement, and the fact that the police have dragged their feet for so long in investigating this massive scandal, is very frightening. The police aspect is terrifying.' During a March 2003 appearance before the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport as part of an inquiry into privacy issues, Brooks seemingly in a very blase fashion, stated that her newspaper had, in the past, paid police officers for information. Which is, at best grossly questionable and, at worst, downright illegal. Alison Clark, the director of corporate affairs at News International, later stated: 'It is not company practice to pay police for information.' Anyway, back to Hugh Grant. The actor continued: 'To me, even more terrifying is the fact that successive governments have winked at all this, because they are completely in hock to the tabloids, especially the Murdoch press, to get themselves elected.' Echoing Tom Watson's comments in the Commons, Grant said that all political parties are 'absolutely terrified' of News International and its various media organs and stated: 'If you've never been in the crosshairs of a red-top tabloid, or even a non-red-top tabloid - just a tabloid, you don't know how ruthless they can be, and how terrifying.' When McMullan was brought on air, Grant remained to discuss the story, frequently responding to McMullen's comments, stating that 'exposing what Jordan's up to, is hardly exposing the Watergate scandal.' Grant concluded: 'I'm quite sure Glenn Mulcaire was told specifically, "Hack Milly Dowler's phone."' Told that he had no evidence, Grant said that his claim was based on speaking to McMullan 'off the record.' Grant was also asked if he thought that it was appropriate for Rebekah Brooks, editor of the News of the World at the time of the alleged hacking of Milly's phone, to lead any hypothetical 'internal investigation' into hacking for the newspaper's parent company News International, where she is now chief executive. He replied: 'That would be like asking me if I thought Hitler was a good person to clear up the Nazi Party. It's completely absurd.'

There's a very interesting, quite perceptive - and, to be fair, rather bitterly worded - piece by Dan Sabbage in the Gruniad to which which I draw dear blog reader's attention. It's entitled Rebekah Brooks's survival strategy: 'So much of News International's strategy to cope with the phone hacking issue looks as if it can be explained by one thing: its perceived need to protect Rebekah Brooks. No doubt that is the right thing to do; back in 2009 when this writer worked for The Times even the merest reference to Brooks's editorship of the News of the World was stripped out of the copy that made it into the newspaper. It was as if Andy Coulson had been the only editor of the red-top before Colin Myler took over. News International's first strategy, of course, was deny, deny, deny all the allegations. That formed the heart of Wapping's initial response to the hacking allegations as raised by the Guardian two years ago (just as Brooks was being elevated from the Sun to be chief executive). It was Brooks who said that the Guardian 'has substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public' – a statement NI later tried to deny she had made when the number of hacking cases mounted up. Since then Brooks has been careful about her public appearances. She does not give interviews on the subject of hacking, while working on the people that matter (well, David Cameron) over dinner. Recall, too, that she declined to appear before the MPs on the culture, media and sport select committee back in 2009, writing in January 2010 that it would be 'pointless and a waste of the committee's time' because members were asking questions that did not relate to her time as editor of News of the World. There may be some more pertinent questions now.'

Warly in the evening came a further twist in the story: The private investigator at the centre of the scandal issued a public apology to all those who have been hurt or upset by his activity. In a statement released exclusively to the Gruniad, Glenn Mulcaire made no direct reference to the alleged hacking of Milly Dowler's phone, but said that he had never intended to interfere with any police inquiry. 'I want to apologise to anybody who was hurt or upset by what I have done,' he said, adding that he had worked at the News of the World under 'constant demand for results.' He released the statement at the Gruniad's request after experiencing what he described as 'vilification' following the revelation of the hacking of the missing schoolgirl's phone. 'Much has been published in the media about me. Up to now, I have not responded publicly in any way to all the stories but in the light of the publicity over the last twenty four hours, I feel I must break my silence. I want to apologise to anybody who was hurt or upset by what I have done. I've been to court. I've pleaded guilty. And I've gone to prison and been punished. I still face the possibility of further criminal prosecution. Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results. I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically. But, at the time, I didn't understand that I had broken the law at all. A lot of information I obtained was simply tittle-tattle, of no great importance to anyone, but sometimes what I did was for what I thought was the greater good, to carry out investigative journalism. I never had any intention of interfering with any police inquiry into any crime. I know I have brought the vilification I am experiencing upon myself, but I do ask the media to leave my family and my children, who are all blameless, alone.'

Radio 5Live's Danny Baker also found himself a part of the story when he attacked the press for the lack of priority given to claims that the News of the World had hacked into Milly Dowler's phone. The Gruniad, the Daily Torygraph and the Independent newspapers all devoted their front pages on Tuesday to the allegations that Glenn Mulcaire intercepted frantic messages left by relatives for the thirteen-year-old when she went missing in 2002, while working on behalf of the News of the World as this blog noted earlier today. Baker, who recently got the all-clear in his battle with cancer, however feels that the story has not been given sufficient priority by most of the press. Writing on Twitter, he posted: 'The #notw story is a genuine and disgusting scandal. Yet most papers aren't giving it anywhere near front page [on Tuesday]. Rot in hell hacks.'

Meanwhile, if you'd like to go here, dear blog reader you can have the delicious sight of watching News International Executive Simon Greenberg squirming like a frog on a hotplate live on national television as one of his own company's employees - well, for the moment, anyway - Adam Boulton gives him a few tricky questions to answer. Now, try the same thing on Newsnight with Paxman, Simon, I dare you. I double dare you.

Satirical website The Daily Mash have been having their say on the subject: 'The full extent of the online hacking scandal was exposed last night as millions of perfectly normal people found themselves on the same side of an argument as the Guardian. As the News of the World fired a salvo of twenty seven cruise missiles through the bottom of the barrel, for the first time in living memory the Guardian was backed by people who are not pathetically self-conscious about every single fucking thing they say or do. Helen Archer, a housewife from Stevenage, said: "If I start being wrong about everything all the time then I vow to you, as God is my witness, someone is going to pay for this. One can only hope that Holloway's least seductive bull-dykes are now running their eye over Rebekah Brooks and oiling their steam-powered love truncheons."' And, also in a frighteningly accurate parody of an infamous News of the World front page: 'Every family in Britain lives no more than fifty miles from a predatory, News of the World phone beast, it has emerged. Experts have warned against exploiting ignorance and creating an atmosphere of rampant hysteria. The discovery has boosted the campaign for a new law that will force police to warn neighbourhoods if a News of the World employee is living nearby, how long they have known about it and how much they were paid to keep their mouths shut. And last night campaigners demanded that politicians who tried to block the law should be "named and shamed" even if it was just going to be a list of all the Tories in Parliament. And probably Peter Mandelson. But some have warned the move could lead to vigilante attacks, with stupid, angry crowds targeting things that sound a bit like "News-of-the-World-reporter" while the journalists would "go to ground" and resort to the opportunistic hacking of phones in swing parks and school playgrounds.' This blogger normally quite enjoys the Mash's deliciously irreverent take on stuff like this but, sadly, this one's a bit too close to the truth to be funny.

And, finally, a comment from a newspaper we seldom feature on this blog, the Financial Times. In an editorial it stated: 'The latest allegations in the phone hacking scandal at News Corp's UK tabloid papers elevate it to a new level. This is no longer just a matter of journalists infringing the privacy of celebrities in order to gossip about them in print. By intercepting the voice messages of a murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, as the News of the World is alleged to have done, the newspaper has potentially impeded a criminal investigation. If true, this is not only wrong and illegal; it exhibits a fundamental lack of human decency. We must hope the public disgust that has greeted the allegations may finally persuade the company to get a handle on the hacking scandal. For nearly five years, it has shamefully dragged its feet as interminable investigations have continued into the illegal interception by its UK journalists of mobile phone messages. True, the police have been similarly lackadaisical and puzzlingly reluctant to pursue cases – an attitude that still has properly to be explained. But none of this excuses News Corp. Rupert Murdoch must now get a grip.' Blimey. You've lost the FT Rupert, slippery slope from here on, matey.


Anonymous said...

Petition against the Sun and NotW here:


Mike Sutton said...

A superb analysis Keith. What a load of cunts.