Thursday, July 09, 2009


What Do To About the Screws?

What should be done – what can be done – when Britain’s most powerful newspaper breaks the law and breaks people’s personal security literally thousands of times? When the massive media multinational owning it has both denied any further wrongdoing when the tip of the iceberg emerged three years ago, and paid millions of pounds in hush money to stop all the rest of it coming out? And when the Labour Party, the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and the “very relaxed” (ie bricking himself) Conservative Leader are all apparently compromised by Mr Murdoch’s money and power?

The Guardian has today broken a story that’s actually shocking. When there’s corruption in politics or journalism, it’s easy to affect being shocked, when actually you know that either it’s not that significant in the grand scheme of things, or you always assumed a bit of it went on, or both. The News of the Screws hacking into three thousand people’s phones with impunity – again, literally with impunity, as it appears that the legal authorities knew about it but, far from doling out punishment, helped cover it up – is a type and scale of law-breaking that left me open-mouthed.

You can read in The Guardian and, I imagine, many more outlets today about The News of the World’s massive programme of illegal phone-cracking – including the then Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister with responsibility for the media, which looks like a multinational using its money and might to compromise national security in quite a significant way – about their massive hush money pay-outs as part of an incredible cover-up, about what some of the victims have to say for themselves and about Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s Director of Communications, who edited The News of the World when it was riddled with this criminal culture (if indeed it’s stopped today).

No doubt debate over a privacy law will erupt again. I’m wary of it, but in any case it’s irrelevant to this case – they’ve broken the law several thousand times anyway. Adding another law is hardly going to put them off. It’s not as if anyone was enforcing the existing laws, is it?

My main worry is over the enormous power wielded by a giant multinational company that’s enabled it to duck all the laws that apply to the rest of us – even when all the relevant authorities were involved.

The People Who Should Have Acted – And Didn’t

We know that the Labour Party has been crushingly afraid of Mr Murdoch’s press ever since it was defeated in 1992. We know that they’ve kow-towed and changed their policies, first to get The Sun’s backing to get into government and then, in government, not to lose it. It’s no surprise that, with defeat looming and every indication that Mr Murdoch does not back losers, Labour people are suddenly today starting to be critical of News International – too little, too late. Particularly when their immediate reaction to someone stealing people’s privacy on a massive scale must be, ‘but that’s our job!’

We know that David Cameron has been desperately attempting to get the same sort of deal with Mr Murdoch that Mr Blair once did. Part of that was to appoint as his head PR man the disgraced former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who was one of the fall guys when a tiny, tiny fraction of this story came out three years ago. Mr Cameron has now said that he is “very relaxed” about his far-right-hand-man being a criminal gang boss, apparently because the hush money was paid out after he left. Well, hush money to cover up a crime isn’t usually paid to the victim before the crime takes place, is it, but when they eventually find out? After having such a massive hit with Gordon Brown’s PR man Damian McBride sending just a couple of e-mails that were legal but nasty, Mr Cameron must be sweating buckets when his own equivalent led a team that was committing thousands of crimes.

The power that The News of the World, its stablemates and its master exert over the two biggest political parties is bad enough. What’s terrifying about this case is that the authorities that should have acted not only didn’t, but actively assisted the cover-up. Were they all afraid of Mr Murdoch’s power? Asleep on the job? Incompetent? Or even influenced by his money?

As Liberal Vision pointedly puts it this morning, “Rupert Murdoch: I liked it so much that I bought your country’s legal system”.

Is There Any Punishment That Would Matter to Murdoch?

This is vastly more serious than MPs’ expenses. Surely it’ll be hammered just as hard and just as long in the… media… Ah. I see the problem. So, with the Labour Government and Conservative Opposition compromised, with the press authorities, legal authorities and Parliamentary authorities all failing, who on Earth will hold this conspiracy to account?

Freedom of the press is vital. Giving the government power over it is deeply worrying. But while the government itself should play no part in individual cases, it must set a framework within which action is taken. The Labour Government has been such an overwhelming bully over our personal lives that it’s easy to forget that, just as the media, the courts and the rest of us have to keep watch on its power to bully, part of the point of having a government at all is to stand up to other bullies on our behalf.

I have no legal background at all, but I suspect it may be too late to do anything about this case on the scale of punishment that it deserves – even if the various authorities belatedly get off their arses. The simple fact is, a fine on the scale any of us have heard of before is unlikely to cut it. News International is simply so huge that it can take a few million here or there without breaking stride. It’s an occupational hazard – it’s no punishment, let alone deterrent (and the mind boggles at how a corrupt media giant might be induced to undergo any form of rehabilitation).

What this deserves is for any paper so riddled with criminal activity to be either closed down or sold off, and its owner barred from buying any replacement – and the whole British arm of the Murdoch empire to be dissolved if investigations reveal that other papers or TV channels were doing it too. I suspect our toothless media law framework has absolutely nothing like the power or inclination to deal with this sort of endemic institutional corruption. The Liberal Democrats should commit to changing it to something with a whole lot more bite before the next time this sort of thing emerges (and it will).

Three years ago, we saw one individual journalist apparently hung out to dry by the Murdoch empire when a tiny fraction of this exploded into the limelight. He said it was only him; The News of the World said it was only him; News International said it was only him. He went to prison. We now know that he was just the tip of the iceberg, that every single News International employee who commented on this was lying through their teeth, and that any who took the stand were perjurers.

Like gangsters who agree to take the fall and not name everyone else involved, what was the price for his silence? Another job? A big pay-off? Surely a police investigation into perverting the course of justice has to start today.

So, while going after individual journalists who have been implicated in this vast conspiracy is necessary, it is far from sufficient when the corruption and illegal practices are blatantly systemic in at least this one newspaper. Given the massive hush money ladled out by Mr Murdoch, The Sun and the rest of News International’s UK pawns must be thoroughly investigated, too. As well as officers of the police and the courts, whose competence, judgment and probity are all now under serious question.

If it’s true that fines are the only shot in the armoury for newspapers themselves, then surely News International have already set their own market rate. They’ve paid three sets of cash that we know of in secret compensation to their victims, totalling around a million pounds. It turns out there are something in the region of three thousand victims in total. That’s a nice easy sum to do, then, isn’t it?

One billion pounds, please, Mr Murdoch, and after that we’ll look at who goes to prison.

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