After the first month of the Hacking Trial, and with a five day recess, I’m taking a moment to reflect on a wider issue, revealed by evidence, that does not impinge on any way on the case against eight defendants, who deny all the charges against them.
I personally think that whatever the outcome of the trials, and despite all the understandable limitations on reporting (the right to a fair trial trumps freedom of expression) this has been a good moment of transparency, for the press and for democracy.
In his opening remarks to the jury at Court 12 of the Old Bailey, Justice Saunders said “not only are the defendants on trial, but British justice is on trial.” I would only add: so is the British press.
There are a series of admissions and agreed facts from both sides which confirm that phone hacking was undertaken on a massive scale at the world’s best selling English-language newspaper, the 168-year-old News of the World.
On the timelines of those agreed hacks are some of the most senior figures in the British government at the time. Two Home Secretaries, with responsibility for the police and counter terrorism, were approached by senior members of the tabloid press accusing them of having ‘affairs’. In the case of David Blunkett, caught in a taped conversation with Andy Coulson, he pointed out that he wasn’t having an affair – he was divorced. Charles Clarke, allegedly approached by Sun political editor Trevor Kavanagh, wasn’t even having an affair.
But the question remains whether this kind of ‘public interest’ in the lives of politicians – the ultimate ad hominem – isn’t actually on a hiding to nothing. None of us share exactly the same sexuality, nor indeed exactly the same beliefs about what (among consensual adults) is good or bad. That the tabloids, filled with journalists with their own proclivities and private affairs, should seek to decide whether something like this is a ‘resigning matter’ (as Coulson apparently said to Blunkett) is just undemocratic, and hardly helps freedom of expression.
In a democracy, we get to elect our politicians. We get to decide whether their personal sexual ethics are important: not the press, 70% owned by three men. To have private lives judged by such a narrow coterie of owners and editors seems to me to be a restriction of our freedom of expression about that most personal thing: who we love and desire.
My second major thought is about the culture of cheque book journalism. The hacking trial has revealed the millions paid to private investigators, the hundreds of thousands offered for ‘kiss and tell’ stories, and then payments, through intermediaries, to models like Laura Hogan, of between seven or ten thousand pounds for trawling nightclubs to find the secrets of celebrities.
This kind of incitement, if undertaken by the police in pursuit of crime, would be dismissed as entrapment or agent provocateur. Not only does it threaten personal privacy, it undermines the objectivity of news, because a money-driven market in stories will always be easily bought off.
My firm belief is that most whistle-blowers don’t need to be paid: when I ask my fellow journalists in the popular press (and there are many good journalists working on the ‘red tops’) the justification for this, they always bring up the MPs expenses scandal, which was exposed by the Daily Telegraph when they paid £100k for a CD stolen from the parliamentary office compiling the data.
If this is the only example of whistle-blowing thanks to cheque book journalism, it’s not a very good one. That CD wouldn’t have existed except for the three year long struggle by investigator Heather Brooke, who used the Freedom of Information Act to force Parliament to compile the data on the money the tax payer was paying Members of Parliament.
I don’t think kiss-and-tells will die, nor do I think that cheque book journalism should perish completely, but the Hacking Trial has revealed how prominent it was in the country’s most popular paper, and if those practices are now discredited, rather than held up as models, it could be a good thing for both the public, and freedom of expression.
PS: If you have some sympathy with these points, you might want to sign up to a Hacked Off declaration launched today, which urges the press to live up to higher standards of accountability and probity by following the Leveson recommendations. This coincides with a painful and incisive lecture by former Sun editor David Yelland, part of it reproduced in the Guardian today.
- Rebekah Brooks phone hacking trial: five key claims (theweek.co.uk)