Phone hacking scandal - the threat to a free press
by Martyn Bond
Do we now face a choice between a corrupt government with a free press or an honest government with a corrupt press?
So the News of the World has folded, but it has left so many unanswered questions. The police have arrested a former editor and a journalist, and released both suspects on bail after questioning. They are expected to question others – including Rebecca Brooks, the managing director of Rupert Murdoch's News International group that owns News of the World – as witnesses, if not as suspects. Just what might the charges be?
The News of the World eavesdropped on conversations and listened to recorded messages on the phones of celebrities and royalty, sportsmen and businessmen, and members of parliament. They did the same to families of those killed in Afghanistan, to missing persons and to murder victims. Who else?
The scale of the operation suggests that the editor did not necessarily approve every case. It suggests a permissive climate where journalists felt – to give them the benefit of the doubt – that they were pursuing a story "in the public interest". It finished up as a trawl by arrogant hacks who felt they were above the law, looking for any information that might simply "interest the public". Tittle-tattle sells papers.
It can do more than that. It can blackmail those in positions of power. Some MPs on a select committee hesitated to subpoena Brooks for fear of the consequences, for them personally. What did they have to hide that News International knew? Has News International shared that information with editors on its other papers – the Sun, the Times, and the Sunday Times? If obtaining this information was a criminal offence in the first place, who has become an accessory after the fact? And why did nobody blow the whistle earlier?
News International has revealed that payments to the police – unauthorised, we must assume – are referred to in an internal memo that is at least four years old. Just who paid off which policeman to do – or not do – just what? Was it to turn a blind eye and not prepare a case against the News of the World then? Or was it for more information about the targets concerned? How far up the chain of command in the Metropolitan Police Force did the payments - or knowledge about payments - go? And why was no action taken earlier?
A lot about the phone hacking scandal has already been revealed, but there is doubtless still much to learn. A criminal investigation is underway. A year or so ago, a former correspondent was jailed over a specific case relating to the royal family and the editor Andy Coulson, was sacked in disgrace. The Prime Minister David Cameron then gave him a "second chance" and appointed him as press spokesman at 10 Downing Street. It was a chilling example of how far the power of News International could reach. Now he has left that post as well. But Rupert Murdoch is still backing Rebecca Brooks with great confidence. He gives the impression that in the struggle between the press and the legislature, he still has some trump cards to play.
News International has sacrificed the News of the World, but it had become an exposed and much weakened pawn that was no longer of much value. At least one minor celebrity received a payout of £100,000 to drop her case against the newspaper and there were scores, if not hundreds, of others queuing up to follow. Even when selling two million copies each week and claiming seven million readers, there are limits to the financial viability of a paper so exposed to legal claims against it.
Many in Fleet Street expect the Sun on Sunday to rise and replace the News of the World by the end of the year. News International may effectively consolidate its stable of titles by sacrificing its weakest link. The Sun on Sunday may well take on staff from the defunct News of the World, and with them the accumulated knowledge gained through the hacking experience will not be lost.
To date the UK press has relied on self-regulation to keep Fleet Street ethically acceptable to society. From the Financial Times to the News of the World, different papers do things differently. The laws of libel, defamation and incitement give a common framework within which there is a large measure of freedom for the day-to-day operation of newspapers.
The Press Complaints Commission, made up predominantly of representatives of newspapers leavened with just a few lay members, patrols the frontier where tough but fair reporting slips over into unacceptable behaviour. Now the News of the World has given the British parliament an excuse and an opportunity to legislate directly to curtail traditional press freedom. Still smarting from press exposure of malpractice by MPs abusing their expenses, Parliament could well leap at the chance.
At issue is the clash between respecting the right to privacy as well as freedom of expression. The public is faced – as it always is - with the age-old question: "Quis custodit custodes?" Who controls the law-makers? Tempting as it looks now for parliament to control the press harshly; we should recall Thomas Jefferson's choice between a corrupt government with a free press or an honest government with a corrupt press. "I would rather have the former," he argued "because then I would at least know when things went wrong".
Martyn Bond is visiting professor of European politics at Royal Holloway University, in the UK, and deputy chairman of the London Press Club
Martyn Bond's piece is very interesting, but Jefferson's either or model doesn't give us all the options. Two more for consideration - (1) what we want is an honest government and an honest press but (2) what we seem to have had for some considerable time is a situation where both are actually corrupt.
If that's true, then we have to think about what's really going on and I believe that leads us to look beyond government and the media alone - if we are to find an effective answer. The common thread, as with so much, seems to be power and it's concentration in both government and the media compounded by the belief (at least amongst politicians) that the power of the media is greater than the power delivered by the democratic process.
An added complication (and there are many others) might well be that in the eyes of the public both politicians and journalists are among the least trustworthy of all the professions. We're seeing the same problems in another realm, the world of football with FIFA internationally and the Premiership at home. The emerging solution in football, at least outside the Premiership seems to be diffusing the power of rich benefactors with supporter and community owned clubs. Interestingly, both the Premiership and FIFA are also increasingly dancing to Murdoch's tune and the influence of Sky's money on the game.
Half of the 92 top flight English clubs have entered insolvency proceedings since the concentration of power in the Premiership, nearly 20 years ago. Contrast that with Germany, with no clubs having insolvency problems in nearly 50 years since the formation of the Bundesliga. Why is that? Diffusion of ownership, mostly community owned and strict regulation. Both seem to be necessary.
So does the answer for politics lie in localism, Big Society etc - with the principles being applied to the centralisation of power in British politics that we have seen grow inexorably over the years since we had an empire. Then as far as the media is concerned the concentration of press power in the likes of News International (but not just NI) perhaps needs to be much more proactively and robustly addressed by the Competition Commission and Ofcom.
Ironically, despite everything that we've learnt in the last week in particular, the government still seems impotent in dealing with Murdoch and BSkyB and is looking to the regulator Ofcom (which some ministers wanted to remove or emasculate) to dig them out of the hole they're in.
So rather than hoping that one or other of the government and the press will remain honest, maybe at least part of the answer to Jefferson comes bizzarely from the German Bundesliga - diffusion of power and ownership and strict regulation.
Michael Frater - Change for the Better. Telford, UK
An honest press would go a long way to keeping the government honest. Unfortunately, the press we have is not a free press, corrupt or not. It has been bought and paid for, and serves largely as a propaganda instrument for its owners - who tend to be rich, right-wing men.
No doubt governments, given the chance, will try to control or hobble the press - but the situation we have where the press simply serves as a big stick with which rich men can batter political opponents into submission is far from desirable.
Any watchdog must have real teeth, not simply for fines - that is something the press actually buy insurance against, but to allow proper redress. That is, the printing of articles stating the wrong doing in the same paper, with the same prominence as the original and with the same number of column inches. Showing readers that they have been misled is by far the best way to deal with disinformation.