News International’s apology over phone hacking, welcome and overdue as it is, cannot “draw a line” under phone hacking.
This gesture, and the settlement of some of the private claims for breach of privacy by hacking victims, must not bring to a halt the process of exposing the facts, because so far we have only seen a small fraction of those facts. The litigants and their lawyers have transformed our understanding of what happened by their relentless demands for documents from the police and the company, but we need that process to continue.
As the former Tory Cabinet minister, Lord Fowler, has said, only a public inquiry will get to the bottom of this. That’s what it will take to address the full breadth of issues at stake, from the role of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to the relationships between News International and government, and from the sinister silence of the rest of the tabloid press to the conduct of senior company executives right up to Rupert Murdoch himself. Who was doing this? Who knew? When? Was there a cover-up? What was the role of the phone companies? Who was implicated? We need an exhaustive investigation.
What we are dealing with here, after all, appears to have been a sustained assault on the privacy of dozens and possibly hundreds of people, from royalty to Cabinet ministers, and from film actors and sportsmen to journalists and ordinary private citizens. We still have no idea of its full extent — whether, for example, other newspapers were engaged in the same practices. All this has important national security implications and raises big questions about how Britain is governed. And as with Watergate, the crime may have been bad, but the sequel was worse.
So far as News International executives are concerned, they must not be allowed to escape appropriate public scrutiny. In admitting, by implication at least, that Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were not the only News of the World employees engaged in illegally accessing people’s voicemails, they formally put to rest the “single rogue reporter” defence they sustained from 2007 until this January. But they must now be forced to explain themselves properly, not just in a brief, slick corporate statement, but one by one in an inquiry witness box, under cross-examination from leading barristers.
How, for example, do they now justify the company’s oft-repeated claim that, back in 2006-7, it thoroughly investigated the affair, that it deployed a top firm of white-collar fraud experts on the task, that it interrogated its own reporters and sifted through thousands of emails, and that the failure of these Herculean efforts proved its innocence?
Colin Myler, the paper’s editor, told the Press Complaints Commission in 2007 and the House of Commons Select Committee on the media in 2009 that he personally had led the investigation. Les Hinton, now the CEO of the Wall Street Journal, twice assured MPs that this investigation had been thorough. Tom Crone, head of legal affairs at News Group Newspapers, and Stuart Kuttner, former managing editor of the News of the World, helped to make the same case.
It doesn’t end there. James Murdoch, now deputy chief operating officer of News Corporation, approved a secret £700,000 payout to Gordon Taylor which prevented the public from learning important information about hacking, and Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International who refused to testify before MPs, should also account for her role. Are all these people really fit to hold senior positions in a leading public company? We should find out.
And in the background now is Andy Coulson, former editor of the paper and former media adviser to David Cameron. He told MPs he knew nothing of phone hacking, and repeated the assertion under oath in a court of law. It is now acknowledged that his ignorance was not limited to what his royal editor was up to. So just how extensive was it?
We need an inquiry. Indeed if we don’t have one, if we let it lie on the strength of a few million in compensation, we are accepting that there is no kind of trouble that Rupert Murdoch and his company can’t buy their way out of.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University. He tweets at @BrianCathcart