Sunday, November 27, 2011

British Bread and Circuses

While the Leveson Inquiry brings revelation after revelation about the sickness at the heart of British tabloid journalism, the tabloids themselves continue to look elsewhere. The Sun could be expected to ignore its owners problems, its front page was more worried about George Michael’s pneumonia. But none of its competitors saw it as a major issue either. The Express hails an anti-Euro victory, the Mail was talking about fat women, the Star fixed its eyes on Beckham, and the Mirror was fretting over Gary Glitter.

There's a reason none of News's enemies are keen to turn the knife. While the Inquiry examines the techniques at the News of the World, it is also gradually throwing light on a sick industry where the overwhelming need to get the story trumps all other priorities. The stark testimony of Millie Dowlers’ parents and the McCanns and the other victims show an industry that is out of control and beyond self-policing. Hacked Hugh Grant is right: a section of the British press has become toxic using tactics of bullying, intimidation and blackmail.

None of the papers are prepared to argue the truth of Grant’s charge. But it is instructive to listen to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s Orwell Lecture. When the Guardian first exposed the Gordon Taylor hacking in July 2009, it was the messenger that police criticised not NotW. News International claimed the Guardian had "deliberately misled the British public". Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman were jailed for illegally intercepting phone messages from Clarence House but they were just rotten apples.

It wasn’t until Nick Davies produced the “for Neville” emails at a House of Commons select committee that the apple defence fell apart. One of the documents seized from Mulcaire’s home had details about the News of the World’s systemic hacking in an email he received with instructions it was for Neville Thurlbeck, the paper’s chief reporter. The document was among 11,000 police seized from the house but lay neglected in a plastic bag until plaintiff Gordon Taylor’s team got them in a court order.

When Taylor’s team advised NotW’s head of legal Tom Crone they had the For Neville email, Crone immediately went to see James Murdoch who had been appointed CEO of News International in 2007. Murdoch agreed to pay £1m in a secret settlement: £300,000 for their own outside lawyers, £220,000 for Taylor's lawyers, and £425,000 to Taylor himself. Crone and NotW's former editor Colin Myler told the Select Committee Murdoch was briefed in 2008 about For Neville and the phone hacking before authorising the payout. But Murdoch has denied the allegations twice to the same committee.

The New York Times called his performance "unflappable" but perhaps they meant "unethical". These were hard times for the News empire, NYT said, with the folding of NotW, the loss of the even bigger $12 billion bid to buy BSB and the exit of many of its top executives. Murdoch had admitted he knew about the emails but said he had never seen them or understood their significance. Crone and Myler were wrong, he told the committee.

But the Tory member of the committee Philip Davies said if Murdoch was right, then it was incredible he paid out so much money to fix the Taylor problem without understanding it first. Paul Farrelly, another committee member, said a 10-year-old would have asked how Clive Goodman could have been the only hacker when he was the royal reporter and football boss Taylor was "clearly not a member of the royal family.” When committee member and hacking victim Tom Watson told him he was the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise, Murdoch responded it was “inappropriate”.

The only reason it was inappropriate was that Murdoch knew of the criminal goings on. Much like today’s tabloids, his preference was to ignore it. Many of the crowd who turn up to the hearings are there to see the stars giving evidence and don’t care about press freedom or responsibility. As Murdoch and his fellow publishers know, the nefarious doings of the press doesn’t sell newspapers. And it will never appear on the front page – not while Freddie Starr is eating my camel. Given their abject surrender of the fourth estate, the industry can have no complaints if Justice Leveson takes away some of their privileges.

No comments: