Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The hypocrisy of the phone hacks

The last week’s news has been dominated by moral outrage. From the re-emergence of the News of the World phone hacking scandal to Pakistan’s cricket players allegedly taking bribes in a scheme to rig spot betting at the bookmakers - uncovered, ironically enough, by the News of the World.

The phone hacking scandal was reignited by the New York Times, which claims to have sources who tell them that Andy Coulson (editor of the News of the World at the time and now the Prime Ministers ‘spin doctor’) was not only aware of the practice, but was actively involved in it. It has always struck me as eminently believable that the editor of the paper was unaware of the ‘dark arts’ employed by his reporters on some of their biggest stories. He has adopted a position of outright denial and provided that he is telling the truth, all is well – if he is shown to be lying on the other hand, then he is finished.

All of which is fascinating, not to mention a headache for David Cameron. If Coulson should start sinking in this scandal, he should not expect a lifeline from the Prime Minister. I noted that 10 Downing Street has referred to him latterly as a ‘media advisor’ rather than his grander title of ‘Head of Communications’ which may be a subtle distancing, just to play it safe.

The fact that this story petered out initially is at first a little puzzling. You would think that the rest of the press would unite to strike a blow at the Murdoch Empire and pursue this story relentlessly. The Guardian, the Independent and the BBC have followed the story, but everywhere else an uncomfortable silence resides; which Charlie Brooker so eloquently described in yesterday’s Guardian as ‘an elephant in the room’. I’m inclined to believe Brooker’s assumption that maybe it is hard to criticise the dark arts when you have practiced them yourself.

This story now represents a battle between the remnants of independent and left leaning quality news outlets, with Murdoch and his perceived influence with the seats of power. They have perhaps decided to follow Benjamin Franklin’s advice at the signing of the Declaration of Independence - that it is preferable to ‘hang together’ rather than ‘most assuredly hanging separately’. They have found a line of weakness that strikes through to both the heart of Murdoch’s media operations and the Conservative Prime Minister whom he has supported and they are determined to draw some blood.

There is however a broader lesson to be drawn from this episode, neatly summed in the old proverb that ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’. Everyone was quick to condemn Pakistan’s cricketers, but was what they did really any worse than the office worker who helps them self to the stationary cupboard's contents or the plumber who does ‘cash in hand’ jobs at the weekend, other than scale?  Was what they did worse than hacking into peoples phones, breaching their human right to privacy in order to sell gossip and tittle-tattle?

The Labour leadership candidates have been quick to jump on to this story, but as usual, for the wrong reasons. As long as politicians seek to score cheap points against their opponents in sleaze stories, they should expect their careers ruined when inevitably they fall foul themselves in the future. They would be advised to remember their party’s relentless pursuit of ‘Tory sleaze’ in the 1990s and Labour’s inability to avoid it themselves in the 2000s.

The phone hacking scandal isn’t a political points scoring opportunity – it is about ending a culture where certain journalists believe (or are encouraged to believe) that any means justify the end. That Coulson is now part of ‘Team Cameron’ should be a marginal aspect in this story. It is of more interest that the same organisation which illegally breaches people’s privacy to fish for scoops feels it is perfectly justified in entrapping dumb ‘celebrities’ in its sting operations.  Stings have their place in journalism; but the accompanying sanctimonious commentary by the News of the World when defending its stings and the mealy mouthed response to phone tapping scandal highlights remarkable double standards.

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