Phone-Hacking : Is Tabloid Journalism Too Powerful?

May 16, 2011, 1:21 AM GMT+0

It’s hardly surprising that MPs voted with such relish to ask its powerful Standards and Privileges committee to investigate the phone-hacking scandal that has dominated politics in the last week. Many politicians are outraged that investigative journalists may have hacked into their phone messages and suspect that the police knew about it without telling them.

After the huge damage caused to politicians’ reputations by the expenses scandal, brought to light by a press leak, some MPs see this as opportunity to fight back. Is tabloid investigative journalism on balance a force for good or ill and are its methods justified or not?

The new preoccupation with phone-hacking is the result of an old story gaining new legs. The old story goes back to 2007 when the News of the World’s royal editor, Clive Goodman and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, were jailed for conspiracy to access phone messages left for royal aides. It’s believed they had been snooping especially on princes William and Harry.

At the time there was considerable suspicion that the practice of phone-hacking was much more widespread but the paper, and its editor, Andy Coulson, claimed it had been a one-off breach of the law which they neither knew about nor condoned. Mr. Coulson took responsibility, however, and resigned. Later he became media adviser to David Cameron and is now in charge of communications at 10, Downing Street.

'Endemic' phone-tapping

The new legs were provided to the old story by the New York Times, which published a story earlier this month, in which a former News of the World employee, Sean Hoare, claimed that the practice of phone-tapping had been ‘endemic’ on the paper and that he had been personally requested by Mr. Coulson to engage in it. The News of the World repeated its denial of the charge, claiming that Mr Hoare was disgruntled for having lost his job.

But the New York Times story revived claims made in 2009 by The Guardian that the News of the World had been engaged in hacking into the phones of several thousand celebrities, politicians and sports stars. The Guardian said it had evidence that the owners of the News of the World, News Group Newspapers, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News International – had paid £1m to settle legal cases in order to stop evidence of illegal phone-hacking coming to light.

The police, however, decided there was insufficient evidence to pursue a new investigation. Some politicians have subsequently claimed that an unhealthily close relation between the police and the News of the World lies behind the decision, something the police strongly deny. The Metropolitan Commissioner’s assistant commissioner, John Yates, has, however, now said it will examine the claims of Mr Hoare.

Phone-hacking has been illegal since 2000. Some investigative journalists argue that not only was it common practice but that it was justifiable. Paul McMullan, another former News of the World journalist, who has said that Mr. Coulson 'would have known, as an experienced journalist, that phone-hacking was something people did', claims that it should be regarded as a minor but necessary evil when journalists are investigating the activities of powerful and dangerous criminals, such as drug barons. Against the sort of threats and dangers he faced in trying to do his job, he thinks phone-hacking is a trivial crime.

Whatever the merits of that claim, many would say there is a world of difference between hacking into the phones of dangerous criminals and targeting politicians, celebrities and sports stars, who provide much of the material tabloid newspapers write about.

'Tip of the iceberg'

That certainly is the view of MPs. The Labour MP, Chris Bryant, who led the call for the Standards and Privileges committee to investigate the matter, said that the reported cases were 'only the tip of the iceberg'. The issue was fundamental. 'It is about what kind of investigative journalism we want in this country. It is about whether this House will be supine when its members’ phones are hacked or whether it will take action when the democratic rights of MPs to do their job without illegal hindrance or interception has been traduced.'

But while no politician would disagree with this, some pointed out that politicians’ own relationship with tabloid papers like the News of the World was not wholly straightforward. Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that many politicians had declined to join him in giving evidence in court against the paper out of fear. 'I have absolutely no doubt that some people were not willing to give evidence because they were afraid. They were afraid of going into the public domain or of taking on people working either directly or indirectly for one of our land’s major newspapers.' Another MP, Labour’s Tom Watson said : 'We are powerless in the face of them, and we are afraid. That is the tawdry secret that dare not speak its name.'

For some, the very fact that David Cameron should choose as his director of communications a former editor of the News of the World is itself evidence of the power of tabloid journalism in general and of the Murdoch empire in particular, and indicates a reprehensible attempt to appease it. Others would argue that it is simply commonsense for a prime minister to employ someone who understands how tabloid journalism works to manage the government’s communications.

Mr. Coulson himself has said very little during the last week except to repeat his denials that he knew of any illegal phone-hacking or that the practice was widespread while he was editor. He has also said he would readily talk to the police if they wish to question him. Many commentators believe, however, that his position remains precarious and would become untenable if his denials were disproved or even became widely disbelieved. His going would be a major political blow to the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile the issue of what is and isn’t justifiable in tabloid investigative journalism is likely to go on being a major source of friction between politicians and the press.

What’s your view?

  • Do you think the News of the World phone-hacking scandal merits further investigation by the police and the standards and privileges committee or not?
  • Do you think we have seen only 'the tip of the iceberg' or not?
  • Do you believe Andy Coulson’s claim that he did not know about the phone-hacking at the centre of the Goodman/Mulcaire case and that the practice was not widespread?
  • Should Mr Coulson stay as director of communications in Downing Street or not?
  • What do you make of Paul McMullan’s case that phone-hacking was a lesser evil?
  • Do you think the police have too close a relationship with the tabloid press or not?
  • Do you think politicians have been too fearful of the tabloid press or not?
  • And in general do you want investigative journalism to act under greater constraints or do you think it needs to be left to go about its business without further checks?