Sunday, 17 July 2011

The rule of law

I am getting more than a little concerned with the way much of the media is gunning for News International (NI).

The hypocrisy of Labour on this subject is something to behold. A couple of years ago several people working directly under Gordon Brown, and even in his office were caught attempting to spread lies about David Cameron when he was leader of the opposition.

Back then we got told that Gordon Brown had no idea what these - if I may be so bold - evil people were doing, and that he was shocked to hear about it. Yet apparently Coulson must have known what was going on in the News of the World, and that James and Rupert Murdoch should pay the price for allowing a culture where the phone hacking could occur. Gordon Brown did not pay the price for a culture - amongst his own directly-reporting staff - where people were willing to spread evil lies for political gain. If the standard that Ed Miliband is holding NI to were to be applied equally then the last Labour Government would all be out on their ears. And yes, that would include the then-climate and energy minister himself.

It is incredible hypocrisy.

The Guardian had a story last week claiming that the Sun had hacked into his and his son's medical records; the BBC led with this story for most of the day, and Gordon Brown himself mentioned it in interviews and within parliament. Yet the Sun came out fighting and proved that their source was a living person and that the information was not obtained by hacking. This forced the Guardian to issue a retraction (hidden away on page 37, in contrast to their original front-page story). I listened to Radio 4 and 5 for most of that day, and did not hear a single mention of the fact that the Guardian's claim had been retracted.

This is the problem: the media are taking claims as being true when they are just claims. And the people doing this are the selfsame people who stand to benefit if NI is weakened or broken up. The Guardian weakens a rival, and the BBC removes some of the threat caused by Sky. No wonder their reporting has been so sensationalist.

David Cameron undoubtedly made a mistake in hiring Coulson, especially after he became PM. Yet Ed Miliband hired Tom Baldwin into a similar position; Baldwin is also another ex-NI journalist with serious allegations against him. Cameron seems sincere when he says he believes in giving people a second chance; after all, Coulson was never even charged with anything after the original enquiries. Now Labour are saying that it shows Cameron's terrible judgement - yet Blair and Brown gave Mandelson two chances after two resignations; the same goes for Blunkett after his resignation and Prescott after his sordid affair.

One rule for Labour, another for Tories?

Labour and the BBC are making a great deal about the number of times that Cameron has met people from the media. Note, however, that Labour have not yet released information about their own such meetings, and I cannot find out if they will be releasing information about such meetings from when they were in power. We do know one thing, however: Blair had three conversations with Murdoch in the nine days before the start of the Iraq war. Of course, that was perfectly okay.

Then we have the alleged hacking of the phones of the  9/11 victims. As far as I can tell this story first appeared in the Mirror (owned by a rival of NI), and seems to come from an accusation that some victims' phone numbers were on a list belonging to a Private Investigator that was hired by NI (amongst other newspapers). Somehow having numbers on a list has become, on the BBC at least, a certainty that the phones were hacked. (On Radio 5 last week the usually-excellent Nicky Campbell told a caller that he needn't use the word 'allegedly' as we could now be fairly sure the accusations were correct). And this matters, as it has put NI's American owners under great pressure. Yet as far as I can tell there is absolutely no evidence publicly available.

Gordon Brown's intervention in the story last week was equally concerning. His speech to the Commons was something to behold  (see part one and the rest) - a man refusing to accept responsibility for anything, just as he blamed everyone else after he was caught on an open microphone calling a voter 'bigot'. Apparently it was all the vile Tories' fault, you see, despite the fact he was at the heart of the Government when the hacking occurred.

We have a great tradition in this country of believing people to be innocent until proven guilty. The media's reporting - and the BBC and the Guardian need especial mention for this - are undoubtedly jeopardising any future trials. Yet I think that is what they may want - the court of public opinion would have well and truly sentenced the accused by the time of any trial, and an acquital would just be seen as an example of how biased the justice system is. After all, everyone *knows* they were guilty weren't they? The BBC and the Guardian told us so.

This is not to downgrade the seriousness of phone hacking, and especially the tampering with Milly Dowler's phone messages. Yet there can be little doubt that other newspapers were involved with the hacking, as shown in the Information Commissioner's Office 2006 report into the scandal. Page 9 shows that other newspapers performed many more questionable activities than the NI group; in particular Trinity Mirror Group and Associated Newspapers. Yet all of the anger is falling on NI for political reasons.

It is totally irrational; except, of course, from Labour's perspective it is all too rational. They are controlling the story and are doing an able job of focussing it upon their enemies rather than on the 13+ years that NI and Labour worked together. In the process they are making some of the people who may have done slightly sleazy things appear like they are the most evil villains in the world. Smear and lies abound.

The News of the World closed because of a campaign on Twitter organised by, amongst others, Mumsnet against the newspaper's advertisers. That is Mumsnet, whose chief executive is the wife of the deputy editor of the Guardian.

I also wonder how much traction this has got in the world outside the media. Do the public really care? True, *if* (and it is a big if) the phones of 9/11 victims were hacked then that is terrible. But to listen to the BBC's output, you'd think that Cameron had been wearing a brown coat as he evilly and callously dialled the numbers. It is subsuming all other news.

Of course, the story is moving so fast that by tomorrow morning I may have a great deal of egg on my face. Perhaps Cameron's fingerprints will have been found on a phone used in the hacking, or a video is released of him, Murdoch, Hitler and Mao plotting their takeover of the world. Who knows? It is getting that stupid.

There is no perspective and certainly no truth in the media's reporting. Any rumour and lie is automatically the truth if it makes Murdoch and NI look bad. The words 'arrest' and 'charge' are being used interchangeably when their meanings have very important differences.

The phone hacking has not killed anyone. The reaction to it may well. And that is my bit of irrational hysteria...

1 comment:

Alan Sloman said...

And today's events show yet more hysterical comment.

I watched the Murdoch's today facing questions to the select committee. I thought the questions they faced were not exactly incisive and we are no further forward knowing what the truth is.

"Newsnight" is again devoting a whole programme to rumour and supposition.