By John Lloyd
The views expressed are his own.
The crisis at the News of the World broke in July 2011. It had been gathering for five years, since the first public intimations surfaced in 2006 of a culture of using private investigators to hack into the mobile phones of those the newspaper wished to investigate. Two ‘rotten apples’ were thrown out by News International, the parent company: these were Glen Mulcaire, the private investigator employed by a number of papers to find out secrets of the objects of their investigations; and Clive Goodman, the News of the World (NotW ) reporter who covered the royal family and whose stories had used material gleaned by Mulcaire from interceptions of the royal princes’ phones. The rest of the barrel, the paper and the company said, was unblemished: as evidence of purity of soul, the then editor, Andy Coulson, resigned, disavowing all knowledge of the hacking but shouldering responsibility as the one on whose watch this had happened. A few months later, he was employed as director of communications by David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party and of the opposition; when Cameron moved, in May 2010, into Number 10 as prime minister, Coulson retained his post and moved with him. It was reported that several of those who met Cameron at this time warned him against employing Coulson. The latter’s claim, that he had not asked a senior reporter about the source of stories which would be among the most important published in any given week, astonished those who had any acquaintance with journalism. However, Cameron said he accepted his word, that Coulson deserved a ‘second chance’ and that he had skills which the leader of the opposition needed.
From these quite modest beginnings grew a scandal whose revelations have laid bare journalistic practices which were not confined to phone hacking, nor to the NotW, and involved issues even more serious: the assumption by leading journalists working for the most widely read section of the British press that the private lives of anyone in whom they wished to take an interest should be open to their gaze and use; increasing subordination of the political class to tabloid pressure; and the possible (as yet unproven) corruption of officers of the Metropolitan Police.
This is written as the News International scandal, and others associated with it, roll on. The issue is sufficiently mature, however, for there to have appeared a substantial minority of voices which dissent from the chorus of condemnation which has attended these revelations, and assert that, even if the scandal is shocking, it has been grossly overblown – as a Wall Street Journal editorial had it, overblown because of left-wing hostility to right-wing newspapers. These voices point out that more important matters face the world; and that, even if Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation (whose UK subsidiary News International is, and which also owns Dow Jones, parent company of the Wall Street Journal) presided over an organization in which such things were winked at, he has also been a force for good in the newspaper trade. He smashed the anarchic Fleet Street print unions which were a barrier to development and growth, invested mightily in an industry from which others were and still are exiting, kept alive (among other titles) The Times at a large loss, provided millions of readers in three Anglophone countries – Australia, the UK and to a lesser extent the USA – with newspapers which they freely and often chose to buy, and ran an efficient and entrepreneurial company. More, as Ros Wynne-Jones argued in the Independent, at times his tabloids did revelatory and campaigning journalism on issues that mattered to a working-class readership: ‘holiday rip-offs, the loan shark thugs, the tawdry parasitical underclass that preys on the poor and elderly’. One could add to her list an appetite for exposing racial extremists: the Sun vividly reported on leading members of the British National Party, which had sought to give a more moderate image of itself, giving Nazi salutes and glorying in racial hatred.
Be careful what you wish for, is the collective message. And given the record, these arguments have force. So we should assert here the importance of what happened, which must be set against these assertions.
First, the News of the World (NotW), for many years the highest circulation newspaper in Britain, systemically hacked into the phones of politicians, celebrities, and people in the news – including murder victims and their relatives – in order to produce exclusives. Their journalists also bribed policemen, both with petty cash and – allegedly – with large payments: an early estimate was that News International (NI) had spent £100,000 on such bribes, though as this is written there is no definite evidence. They found out about the private sins of people in public life – and where they did not print details, they held the results of the investigations over their heads. The Liberal Democrats, the junior party since May 2010 in Britain’s governing coalition, alleged that senior officials had been told that News International papers would ‘do them in’ if they did not press for the government to allow Murdoch to take full control of the highly profitable UK satellite broadcaster BSkyB; he already owns 39 per cent, and his son James was and remains chairman. This was threatened, it is alleged, at the time when Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, had the responsibility of deciding on the bid. He was relieved of that when, in a sting organized by the Daily Telegraph in December 2010, he told two journalists who were posing as his constituents, that he was ‘at war’ with Murdoch. The responsibility passed from his department to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary – who was on course to approve it until the revelations came, and the deal was lost. In late July, several journalists who had worked for other tabloids – such as the Daily and Sunday Mirror – alleged that phone hacking was common in these newsrooms, under the editorship of Piers Morgan (1995–2004) and perhaps before and after. It rapidly appeared likely that the NotW was not alone in accessing messages to obtain salacious gossip. In September last year, the New York Times Magazine, in a major exposé of the News International affair, quoted a former NotW reporter, Sharon Marshall, as saying that ‘It was an industry wide thing. Talk to any tabloid journalist in the United Kingdom, and they can tell you each phone company’s four-digit codes. Every hack on every newspaper knew this was done.’