Lessons from the hacking scandal

By Jonathan Coulter. First published at Campain.org. Republished here, with permission and thanks.

On 29th November, the Hacked Off Campaign held an event “Ten Years on from the Scandal that Rocked Britain”, with four speakers and three panellists, in a chilly University of Westminster auditorium.

I particularly suggest watching Nick Davies, who exposed the scandal (starting in 2006), and his exchanges with the other participants. These include Alan Rusbridger, the Editor of the Guardian who supported Davies and, amazingly, allowed him to focus on this single topic for over seven years. 

Professor Steven Barnett started the event by saying the Guardian’s ground-breaking revelations were about much more than phone-hacking. They concerned the routine and systematic abuse of journalistic principles in several newsrooms, and most importantly of all, the abuse of power.

To me, the panel throws light on the fears dominating British public life, as I discussed in a previous blog, and upon the surreal world we encounter when trying to push back against misrepresentation. It does not justify, but helps explain, a phenomenon we in CAMPAIN have much noted, that both leaders and members of the public often fawn, or “walk by on the other side”, when faced with the most outrageous falsehoods.

A nasty business

Davies characterizes newspaper editors – with the notable exception of Alan Rusbridger – as bullies. They do a lot of shouting, and their writ holds throughout the journalistic the chain of command. They will if they can, “do violence” to the reputation of someone who seriously crosses them.

It is an environment that foments resentment, and this played to Davies’ advantage, meaning that he could find people of conscience prepared to spill the beans about the criminality taking place in their own newsrooms or under their watch. This allowed him to gradually penetrate the vast web of phone hacking and related abuse, of which there may have been as many as 12,800 victims, though the precise number is unknown.

However, as the Guardian revealed the facts, the press, the police and Murdoch’s allies within the House of Commons closed ranks, placing both Davies and the Guardian in an unenviable position. They were being made to look as if there was no evidence behind their assertions. It was one thing to obtain off-the-record information from whistle-blowers, but quite another to persuade any of them to break cover.

The most frightening point came in July 2009, when Rusbridger and Davies were instructed to appear before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, an event at which they were “being set up to have their careers ended”. Then, just two or three days before the meeting, one source authorized some key evidence that showed that Murdoch’s group had been covering up its employment of law-breaking private investigators, and that Scotland Yard had been sitting on important information and failed to use it in stopping the cover-up.

So, what have the years of investigation achieved?

The investigation reduced the level of criminal phone-hacking to near zero, and has improved privacy, but Davies objected that it had been totally unsuccessful in getting the newspapers to tell the truth. They systematically ignore the first clause of the IPSO Code of Conduct, which requires that they correct any false or misleading information they publish: “If they abided by that clause, Britain would still be in the European Union”.

He had expected that exposure would lead to Britain’s mainstream press getting a decent regulator, but it didn’t happen. We have ended up with IPSO which is similar to the Press Complaints Commission it replaced and allows the press to continue distorting the truth (i.e. lying) day after day with impunity.

Alan Rusbridger provided further illumination, describing how, following the Milly Dowler revelations of 2011, there was an “Arab Spring” moment when two or three newspaper editors recognized the need to clean up Fleet Street. However, the opportunity was wasted and they ended up closing ranks with Murdoch’s editors and Paul Dacre of the Mail.

At the end of August 2015, Rebekah Brooks was back as CEO of News UK and Murdoch had in effect put “two fingers up to the British public” (in the words of Chris Bryant, the then shadow culture Secretary). In 2018, the Government reneged on Cameron’s commitment to Part ll of the Leveson Inquiry, IPSO has not acted to regulate journalistic standards, and now Boris Johnson wants Paul Dacre, a virulent opponent of public sector broadcasting, to run Ofcom.

In Davies’ view, the key underlying problem is that senior people in the British power elite live in fear of Murdoch, a “pathologically greedy man”, and will not stand up to him. This was most evident after the 2014 trial of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, when police planned to interview Murdoch, as a suspect under caution, but yielded to bullying and backed off. “So”, says Davies, “what did we achieve (from seven years investigation)? We didn’t even teach the police it needed to stand up to this bullying”.

Davies mentioned two further factors that contribute to the failure. One was the development of the internet which is literally “flooding the planet with words” and making it difficult for journalists to get people to focus on one story. The other was the growth of a powerful and very skilled PR function within Government and the private sector, something which had scarcely existed when he started work in the 1970s. This allows Governments to virtually ignore public opinion. Taken together, these factors had reduced to “near impotence” our ability to change the direction of events.

A movie on the hacking scandal

George Cloony, himself the son of a newspaperman, wanted to make a movie based on Davies’ book “Hack Attack, how the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch”, announcing his intention as far back as 2014. He described the book as having “all the elements – lying, corruption, blackmail…The fact that it’s true is the best part.” However, in 2019 he scrapped the idea due to Hollywood’s fear of upsetting Rupert Murdoch, whose group has enormous power to review movies. Cloony’s scriptwriter had been unable to raise US$ 20 to $ 30 million, modest figures by Hollywood standards.

There is still hope that the story will hit the big screen, as another project is now being developed with “an A team” – so let’s watch this space!

The emergence of an independent press regulator, IMPRESS

While the mainstream national media has resisted regulation, the Leveson Inquiry did lead to the establishment of one independent regulator called IMPRESS. Two panel discussants spoke for IMPRESS, including Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, Head of Regulation, and Paul Wrag, a member of its Code Committee.

Kirconnell-Kawana said IMPRESS now had a membership basis of 200 titles that reach 16-17 million readers per month. Large swathes of the independent media (including titles like the Canary) had voluntarily signed up, because they believed in a new form of publicly accountable journalism. Unlike the case with IPSO, no sitting editor or political actor could be part of the IMPRESS governing body. Unlike IPSO, it runs a low-cost arbitration scheme and gets people compensation for the abuse they suffer, and as Paul Wrag added, it shows what could be achieved if the mainstream titles were independently regulated.

Looking forward

Davies, who is now in retirement, ended with a word of advice for the Hacked Off Campaign (of which I am supporter). If he were running Hacked Off, he would not be trying to expose a residue of crimes committed 15 years ago and more. He would focus on what he sees as a far more important problem: newspapers’ failure to tell the truth in the here and now.

We need an organization that checks the facts of, say, five random stories published by each newspaper, and produces a “falsehood quotient” (FQ) that it promotes every week. This would provide the political parties with a rationale for legislation, requiring broadcasters to publish the FQ on a daily basis. It would prove a very effective corrective, prompting people to avoid buying newspapers with a poor FQ and hitting the newspapers “in their most sensitive organ, i.e. their wallet”.

Steven Barnett is a board member of Hacked Off, and his immediate reaction was to welcome the idea, though unlike Davies, he still saw the need for work on past cases in some areas like intrusion into grief, and discrimination.

In 2014, the Guardian and the Washington Post earned the highest accolade in US journalism, by winning the Pulitzer Prize for their ground-breaking articles on the Snowden leaks. By contrast, the British establishment has never honoured the Guardian and associated journalists for their tireless work in exposing the evil of the hacking scandal and the ruthless power-play that lay behind it. However, as ordinary British people, there is much we can do to honour their courage and diligence. We should study their experience and work to ensure that the mainstream media helps strengthen our democracy, rather than distorting it.

Many books have been written about the hacking scandal, and I suggest starting by watching the video and then reading Nick Davies’ book (“Hack Attack“). Another book by Davies, “Flat Earth News“, and Alan Rusbridger’s “Breaking News, the Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now“, provide invaluable background on the British press.


This blog has been re-published with permission and thanks to campain.org

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