Just two weeks ago I was emailing all the leading journalists I know, recruiting support for a campaign which I feared would struggle to attract public attention, let alone result in action. We were supposed to launch on the Wednesday (6 July). On the Monday, however, the Guardian published Nick Davies’s report of the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone and everything changed.
It has been a breathless fortnight, not least for Hacked Off, whose objective was to secure a public inquiry into the scandal. By the time of the formal launch our website (www.hackinginquiry.org) was online, our petition already had something like 5,000 signatures and the government had actually announced an inquiry. We were still concerned, however, that it should have teeth, that it should address all the issues and that it should not fall victim to any political sleight of hand.
Because Hacked Off existed as a group, because we had been thinking about a public inquiry and because we had connections with hacking victims, we were in a position to help a little in shaping the inquiry — though it’s worth remembering that the terms of reference will not be fixed until next Tuesday (or so we are told).
We saw all three of the main party leaders and three of the Commons select committee chairmen. I think they were still gathering their own thoughts as they spoke to us; certainly they seemed open-minded and receptive. That the inquiry would be led by a judge was already decided, but little else. We pressed the politicians to ensure that it was established promptly and with clear terms of reference (so there could be no “long grass” shenanigans). We made the case for the inquiry to start work immediately, on the grounds that there is plenty to do before criminal proceedings have run their course. We urged that the inquiry should range over the whole of the press and not just News International. And we argued for wording that would enable the judge to call politicians to give evidence at any stage. (These are, roughly, the points that we set out in our manifesto document at the beginning of the campaign and we were conscious that we had no remit to go further. We have never, for example, had a Hacked Off view about the BSkyB purchase.)
We need to remain vigilant until Tuesday, but on the face of it the leaders — David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband — appeared to agree to pretty well everything we suggested, including some detailed drafting. It is possible, I suppose, that they might have reached the same conclusions without our prompting. I can’t say that the latest draft terms-of-reference document is a simple one — for example, the inquiry will have different characters at different times — and no one could ever claim it was perfect, but assuming there are no last-minute changes it seems to me that it has the capacity to put before the public, over time, a lot of the truths that need to be told, and certainly many more of them than seemed likely to emerge only a couple of weeks ago.
A couple of questions now. First. who do I mean when I talk about “we”? Hacked Off began in conversations I had with Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust and the campaign idea gained momentum from exchanges with some of the victims’ lawyers. We joined forces then with some of the prominent politicians who were most active on hacking — though they have since largely gone their own way, concentrating on parliamentary activities.
Hacked Off has thousands of online supporters, as well as its dozens of distinguished early endorsers (named on the website) and the lawyers and victims. At its core, however, are the people who met the party leaders: Martin Moore, Evan Harris (the former LibDem MP and a campaigning genius), Mark Lewis (solicitor to a number of hacking victims) and me. With us were Brian Paddick, a hacking victim who knows about policing, Thais Portilho-Shrimpton, a journalist (and Kingston journalism graduate) who has been coordinator and press officer, Rachit Buch and Vanessa Furey, who work with Evan Harris, and also Horatio Mortimer, who works for Sovereign Strategy, of which more in a moment.
Then there were the Dowlers, Bob, Sally and Gemma. Their contribution has been tremendous. I can see that it would have been difficult for a party leader to decline to meet them, but they were far more than just a means of opening doors. They were never bullies and they were rarely emotional; they were engaged, constructive, clear-sighted and a real part of the Hacked Off group. And there was also Hugh Grant, whom you may have seen and heard. (I swear that if you dropped him in the middle of the Sahara a crowd would form in seconds.) He has been a powerful asset, often ready to appear at short notice, active in the strategy discussions and very shrewd about how to be most useful to the campaign.
As I say, it is not over. At the very least we need to keep up the pressure until Tuesday and we are keen to help ensure that the interests of the victims are well represented when the inquiry itself begins. Beyond that it is clear already that we will not simply wind up Hacked Off. We are just at the beginning of a great storm of debate about the press, police and politics and we see value in Hacked Off being around to take part in that debate, though obviously we will need to consult our supporters about that.
And how have we paid for the campaign? So far we have had only minor costs — mainly the website, taxis, a few meals and central London meeting rooms for briefing and debriefing on our big meeting days. We have lived hand to mouth. Sovereign, which is a lobbying and PR company run by former Labour MEP Alan Donnelly, helped us pro bono with one room and some admin and taxis. I paid for one room in a Whitehall hotel (not cheap, I have to say). The Media Standards Trust has paid for the website. Things became a bit tight on Wednesday and I turned for help to the nearest rich person I could find, Hugh Grant, who was gracious and generous. We are afloat, but assuming we carry on in some form we will need to get the campaign a more regular footing.
There have been moments in the past ten days when I asked myself, or expected someone to ask me, “Who the hell are you to be roving around Westminster lecturing elected representatives?” In those moments I have recalled those people — victims, journalists, academics, lawyers — who have watched the scandal unfold over the years and who feared, like me, that the truth would never come out. I also recalled the dozens of prominent people who agreed to support us before the Milly Dowler story broke, and I recalled the many thousands who have signed our petition and other petitions, demanding an effective inquiry. Some of them, I know, are readers of this blog. I hope they, or rather you, have been content with the contribution that Hacked Off has been able to make so far.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and tweets at @BrianCathcart