Coulsongate: a huge indictment of our system


9:45 am - July 9th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    


      Share on Tumblr

It’s amusing to watch Tories try and dismiss this massive bombshell so easily. According to the BBC, a spokeswoman for David Cameron said he was “very relaxed” about the story. “The ramping up of this story is ridiculous – this is about a payment made well after Andy (Coulson) left the News of the World.”

But the focus on what payments were made and when is besides the point. Here’s the crux of the matter: it is alleged that while Andy Coulson was deputy editor and editor at the News of the World thousands of people were being illegally spied on and their data tapped into by a big network of journalists at News International.

Yesterday night the Infomation Commissioner confirmed that 31 journalists at the News of the World and the Sun were involved in “blagging” people’s information. This is staggering. Already that means News International lied earlier when its executives claimed that only Clive Goodman was involved in the spying racket.

How could 31 journalists be involved and the deputy editor and later editor of that paper not know? If these allegations are true than this is criminality by a national newspaper on a vast scale.

What’s even more crazy about this case is that Scotland Yard supposedly knew some of this and did not even inform the people under surveillance. Andrew Neil on Newsnight last night was spot-on: this is a terrible indictment of our system. And lastly – it once again exposes how rubbish the Press Complaints Commission is, which killed off its inquiry into the whole saga once Andy Coulson resigned. News International was hiding a lot and it was able to keep this under wraps for several years. It even paid exorbitant amounts of money to do so.

Andy Coulson has to come clean about what he knew. And Cameron cannot pretend this has no bearing on Coulson’s ethics.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Media ,Our democracy ,Westminster

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


We all knew the Press Complaints Commission was spineless before this story broke, to be fair.

One wonders who the journalists managed to ‘blag’ information from – what the hell happened to safeguards on personal information?!?

News International was hiding a lot and it was able to keep this under wraps for several years. It even paid exorbitant amounts of money to do so.

I wonder if News Int are going to file that exorbitant out-of-court settlement as “losses” and offset it against tax? I wonder what our friend John B thinks 😉

3. Louis Mazzini

Andrew Neil suggested an American style class action suit might be appropriate in this case. Does anyone of a legal bent know if such a thing could be done in the UK?

Let’s assume it can and have some fun with maths.

According to The Guardian, Gordon Taylor got a £700,000 payout from News International and there may have been up to 3,000 people who had their phones bugged.

So £700,000 * 3,000 = £2,100,000,000

OUCH.

Mr Murdoch might have to cut down on the private jets and yachts. Ah bless 🙂

I wonder if News Int are going to file that exorbitant out-of-court settlement as “losses” and offset it against tax? I wonder what our friend John B thinks

Not an accountant, but since this payout will impact on profits, it will presumably therefore affect their EBITDA, and thus their taxable profit. So, yes.

5. Richard (the original)

The allegations against Coulson are serious, I just think it’s silly to link it in with the Tories. If he was doing it under Cameron’s watch I would understand.

If the Tory party had any ethics at all they would not have touched Andy Coulson with a ten foot barge pole.

7. David Boothroyd

News Group tabloid newspaper editors, more so than other editors, need to be deeply involved in almost every aspect of their newspaper’s big splash stories – and that means knowing their provenance, in case the person concerned sues. It may be that Coulson genuinely did not know that so many News of the World stories were coming through bugged phones, but if so he was falling down on his job.

The question for the Conservative Party and David Cameron personally is whether it was wise to appoint someone who was in charge when the Clive Goodman tapping was going on and resigned over it? Was it not always unbelievable that Coulson resigned purely as a matter of honour? Was it not a hostage to fortune as to what else may have subsequently emerged about his involvement?

Unbelievable all this is.
Above all, this is a slap in the face to all those la-la land people who still want to believe that The Sun and the News of The World are “not that powerful” really.

Here’s a company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Group News­papers, who at best cajoles the police and the Crown Prosecution Service into inaction over a massive criminal operation. At best.

#5

For me this would have little to do with the Tories if Cameron hadn’t been so quick to back Coulson’s version of events and say “of course” he’d be keeping his job. Cameron has made it about the Tories with his remarks today. Time will tell whether that was a wise decision.

I wish people would stop linking it with the McBride stuff, though. That was schoolboy, malicious politics albeit legal, and he was fired quickly. This (if true) is literally thousands of acts which are not only immoral but also illegal, and if Coulson knew about them it’s a massive conspiracy presided over by a man who will be one of the most powerful people in the country if the Tories win the next election, brushed under the carpet by the man who will lead the country if the Tories win the next election.

schoolboy, malicious politics albeit legal

Well, it was all libellous. Plus it was done by a civil servant, making a good case for misconduct in public office. So potentially illegal on two separate grounds. In this case the release of information is only in contravention of the Data Protection Act in the absence of public interest. There probably won’t be any public interest defence for the vast majority of these cases, but they are only, as it stands, potentially illegal acts.

11. Ken McKenzie

FWIW, I see the fact that it was Coulson, and that he’s tied in with the Tories, as being secondary to the issue that powerful interests in the media systematically broke the law and then used money to gag reporting and investigation of the issue.

This is primarily political only in the way that it highlights how powerful and fundamentally untrustworthy the press is, yet how it is the main conduit of information about what is going on in the world to much of the population. It subverts democracy.

This site might be best hammering that tack rather than going after Coulson, as that can be painted – and ignored – as a purely partisan act.

@10, libel isn’t a criminal offence, and there’s very clearly no case at all for misconduct in a public office. So, err, no.

@12 There’s a difference between criminality and legality, as I’m sure you know.

a) A public officer acting as such.

b) Wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself.

c) To such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder.

d) Without reasonable excuse or justification.

Civil servant, in office time, drafts plans for a site designed to spread libellous comments about opposition MPs. Very clearly no case at all? Possibly a touch more ambiguous than that.

It does the the whole question of the dead tree media’s inability to police themselves and the cosy relations with politicians . How many journalists outside the Murdoch Empire suspected but did not spill the beans? It suggests there is a far too close relationship at the highest echelons between the Police, the law, politicians , civil servants, the media and political classes.

It is worth reading the News International account to the Commons Select Committee inquiry, which is now being urgently reopened. It is from a parallel universe.

http://www.nextleft.org/2009/07/what-news-international-told-commons.html

I’m not sure about this, perhaps (yes, I’ll get the jibe in first, Tim often doesn’t know the facts) because I don’t quite know the facts.

There’s two different things here.

1) Bugging a phone. Actually tapping into the live conversation. Yes, this can be done with GSM phones but you need a bit of kit which if you aren’t a government agency you’re not supposed to have. Very naughty indeed for someone to sell you one, let alone for you to use it.

2) Checking voice mail messages. Guido is saying (take however much salt you want with that) this is what was being done. Use the network pin code and as long as the victim hasn’t put in their own pin code then you can simply get the play back of their voice mail messages.

Now, both might be illegal (I don’t know, the first one most definitely is and that’s how we got SquidgeyGate) but I would argue that for the first, yes, jail the bastards. The second?

Hmmm. Certainly when we start talking about Ministers (isn’t John Prescott saying he was caught up in this) then it’s their own stupid damn fault. If you’re going to pretend to run the country then you really ought to take the most basic security procedures. And yes, I would expect the Security Services to tell them about this and if they didn’t then they bloody well should have.

By analogy: US libel law deifferentiates between public figures (hey, you’re in hte public eye, people will talk about you!) and private figures. You have to prove malice against a public figure for what you print to be libellous. Not so with a private figure, it just has to be untrue and damaging to the reputation.

The analogy is that those who climb the greasy pole to positions of eminence do have some duty to take basic security provisions. Like, change the pin on their voice mail. Journalists taking advantage of those that don’t sounds to me like decent investigation, not a criminal offence.

This does all depend on whether Guido is right about what they’re doing, of course……

For the first time in my life I agree with John Prescott.

I would say however that the ICO, among others, warned time and again of a perennial problem with invasions of privacy by the media but few seemed interested – I don’t recall seeing a similar fuss to this, in any case.

18. Richard (the original)

“@10, libel isn’t a criminal offence, ”

There is such a thing as criminal libel although it’s very rarely “used”.

Certainly when we start talking about Ministers… then it’s their own stupid damn fault.

“Victim of crime shouldn’t have enticed criminals” is a fairly bizarre line to take on this, isn’t it? I expect it out of Guido, since he’s basically a partisan wingnut tit of astronomical proportions, but really, Timbo.

I’d say that tapping ministers and high ranking public officials is significantly worse than tapping private individuals, since the potential for blackmail/extortion is so much greater. If this comes to court, I’d expect the judge to throw the book at these jokers, and rightly so.

Tim, while I don’t know if accessing someone else’s voicemail without their permission constitutes a criminal offence, you’re being a bit Judge Pickles when you suggest that the victim failing to change the default PIN somehow lessens the offence.

As for ‘decent investigation’, what I understood from Guido is that the exercise was more of a fishing expedition* than anything targetted.

* e.g. “I wonder if there is anything saucy on Elle MacPherson / Gwyneth Paltrow / Nigella Lawson’s phone?”

@FlyingRodent – in blaming the victim he is at least being consistent with the normal right-wing line. Give him that.

22. Denim Justice

Everyone make sure you’ve not sent any potentially embarrassing private messages on your social networking sites! 🙂

23. Ken McKenzie

According to Nick Davies, who I am afraid I consider to be significantly more trustworthy that Guido, I quote

“In suppressing Taylor’s legal action, News Group buried not only the Scotland Yard evidence but also paperwork that had been seized by the Information Commission from a Hampshire private investigator, Steve Whittamore, who had been running a network of sources who specialised in the illegal extraction of information from police computers, British Telecom, the DVLA, Inland Revenue and others. Whittamore subsequently pleaded guilty to criminal offences, although the newspapers who hired him were never prosecuted.”

So, not just phone hacking going on there.

24. Fellow Traveller

The Compute Misuse Act 1990 will cover the unauthorized access to voicemail and text messages stored on servers owned by the telecoms provider. The fact that someone used an easy to guess password does not make it legal for another person to access material stored on a computer without their permission anymore than your having a cheap, easy to circumvent lock on your front door makes it legal for someone to break into your house.

In suppressing Taylor’s legal action…

They didn’t suppress it, they settled it.

26. Ken McKenzie

Tim, they suppressed the details. Take it up with Nick Davies, it’s him who said it.

Nick Davies is being absurd. As part of a settlement deal, it was agreed between the parties that the documents should remain confidential. Supressing it strongly suggests that it was forced by News Int. It wasn’t, it was based on an agreement to settle.

Are you suggesting that it was the other parties and not News International who wanted the documents to be suppressed?

To be honest this is the pretty frightening. A private organisation hacking so deeply into the private lives of elected politiicians charged with governing the country is not only really bad form, its a threat to democracy.

30. Ken McKenzie

Yes, Tim, I expect that this agreement was founded on an wholly equitable balance of power and that News Corp in no way were able to dictate terms to their advantage.

Get your partisan head out of your backside and accept that this is an issue of Murdoch feeling he’s above the law. If you grew a pair and tried to do something about it, you might be able to get your party out from under his scaly boot, and we’d all be better off.

Yes, Tim, I expect that this agreement was founded on an wholly equitable balance of power and that News Corp in no way were able to dictate terms to their advantage

Don’t be a moron. This was a legal settlement agreement in which the party in the stronger legal position would be in the best place to dictate terms. It is standard practice in civil litigation for documents disclosed into court to remain confidential after the settlement of a case out of court. Some 90 odd per cent of legal disputes are settled, and to suggest that legal actions are being supressed as a result is a ridiculous misuse of language.

Tim Worstall, I take it you think women wearing mini-skirts when they walk back from nightclubs at 3am are also being dumb?

“Tim Worstall, I take it you think women wearing mini-skirts when they walk back from nightclubs at 3am are also being dumb?”

Certainly. I don’t think they deserve to get raped, I don’t wish such upon them and I don’t think that their doing so mitigates the crime against them if committed.

But yes, I think it’s dumb, certainly.

Wandering around where pickpockets prevail with a visible wallet in your back pocket is also dumb: doesn’t mean the pickpocketer is any less of a crimnal simply because the pickpocketee is being dumb.

34. Ken McKenzie

Nice straw man, Tim. I’m over here, though.

Let’s try another quote from Nick Davies, who I expect is crying over his Journalist of the Year award over being called a ‘moron’ by a Tory partisan,

“By persuading the high court to seal the file and by paying [Gordon] Taylor more than £400,000 damages in exchange for his silence, News Group prevented the public from knowing anything about the hundreds of pages of evidence which had been disclosed in Taylor’s case, revealing potentially criminal behaviour by journalists on its payroll.”

So, Tim, is this acceptable?

@33
God almighty Tim. That was the mother and father of all strawmen.
You really deserve a gold medal for Arguing the Toss and its flipside and back again, I give you that!

Not a straw man at all, I’m quoting Nick Davies, “In suppressing Taylor’s legal action…” And the moron was aimed not at Nick, for his misleading use of language, but at you, for believing that in arriving at a legal settlement in which he was paid full legal costs, plus £400,000 damages, Gordon Taylor was at a disadvantage.

Acceptable? Of course it is. Legal settlements, as I said, routinely include conditions that documents disclosed into court should remain confidential. If the police have reason to believe that evidence of a crime has been so classified, they can ask for a warrant for its disclosure. Which I suspect they are in the process of doing.

The journos are just unhappy that, because this didn’t go to full trial, they missed out on lots of juicy gossip. I don’t see that as an existential threat to the nation. Nor am I being especially partisan, as I don’t see this really as impacting on the Tories particularly.

Jebus. I doubt anyone thinks it’s acceptable in this context. But to claim a business that prima facie committed one or more criminal offences can dictate terms to its advantage in the context of settling with the victim outside of court? I’m not sure that Gordon Taylor was short of a few bob before the event, and after the event he was £700k better off. That doesn’t shout one-sided to me.

38. Ken McKenzie

Tim J,

Wrong answer. It isn’t acceptable. It wasn’t acceptable then, and it isn’t acceptable now, and you wouldn’t think this was acceptable if Labour were involved.

Oh, and your name links to your non-partisan ‘Conservative Party Reptile’ blog. Just a word of advice. Even a moron like me thinks that makes you a bit daft.

The allegations made mean this affair is far worse than the tawdry McBride email affair. This involves allegations of criminallity, cover-ups and suppression. It goes to the heart of British democracy, of the freedom of its press and ownership of information.

I don’t have a high opinion of Tory voters, but the level of mass delusion and serious denial this morning was still astonishing.

This is bad, Tory people. Bad for Mr Coulson, bad for Murdoch, bad for the PCC and best of all, bad for Cameron himself.

It took the Tory tabs three to five years of Labour in government to really get their claws into Mr Blar. It’s not even taken an election before Dave has severely damaged himself.

40. Ken McKenzie

@ukliberty

My feeling is that NewsCorp offered Taylor the choice of

A) Take a lot of money and shut up
B) Don’t take a lot of money and we’ll drag this through the courts forever. If you lose, you’re ruined. How confident are you?

I’d take A, and I wouldn’t feel that was because I had all the power in that relationship.

Wrong answer. It isn’t acceptable. It wasn’t acceptable then, and it isn’t acceptable now, and you wouldn’t think this was acceptable if Labour were involved.

Nonsense. If it hadn’t been for the civil court case between News International and Taylor, none of these documents would have been disclosed into court. Since the case has been settled between the parties, without recourse to trial, there is no reason at all why they should be released. They aren’t public documents. If, as I said, the police think they might be evidence of criminal conduct, they should apply to a magistrate for a warrant, which a) I suspect they are doing, and b) I suspect they would get.

And for heaven’s sake. I wouldn’t dream of denying that I’m a conservative – as you say the name of the blog’s a bit of a hint that way. But in commenting on a legal case between News International and Gordon Taylor, which has been reported on by the Guardian, my conservatism is neither here nor there. So I’m afraid the fact that you think I’m daft to deny being partisan only makes you more of a moron.

Happy to discuss where this leaves the Tories if you’d like, and on that I might well be partisan, though I generally try to write with at least a little detachment.

Ken @ 40, alternatively NewsCorp lacked confidence in the chances of defeating Taylor in court and / or or its ability to successfully wage a war of attrition, so they settled on close to half a million in damages, plus costs, and Taylor was content to take the money (roughly the same as his annual salary) and keep quiet. Trebles all round.

Of course we don’t know, but as I say it doesn’t scream one-sided to me. I’ll shut up now if you give me a tenner.

43. Ken McKenzie

@ukliberty

Ha ha! You’re right, we’ll never know. Soz about the tenner, though. My pockets aren’t quite as deep as Murdoch’s.

Tim @41:

Nonsense. If it hadn’t been for the civil court case between News International and Taylor, none of these documents would have been disclosed into court. Since the case has been settled between the parties, without recourse to trial, there is no reason at all why they should be released. They aren’t public documents. If, as I said, the police think they might be evidence of criminal conduct, they should apply to a magistrate for a warrant, which a) I suspect they are doing, and b) I suspect they would get.

An interesting point, and one which you are not alone in raising. In fact, quite a few people have asked the question in context: 1) since the law were aware, having jailed two NotW operatives for a small subset of the crimes committed, that NotW were systematic criminals and 2) since the legal system were aware that there were in existence hundreds of pages of evidence that News International had committed upwards of a thousand crimes, then 3) why the hell did the police not open criminal investigations into the editorial staff at both the Sun and the News of the Screws? And, ideally, the entire board of NI, since the Dirty Digger is unlikely to have funded an illegal espionage operation spanning four years and thousands of criminal acts without knowing he was doing it.

One might, in fact, argue that this is central to the entire scandal. It’s not just that NI bought the law, not once but several times: it’s not just that they lied in front of Parliament, that they disclaimed all knowledge when two of their investigators were jailed for getting caught, and that the editor in charge of the debacle now works for our probable future prime minister. It’s that the police, who are not covering themselves with rigorously objective and principled glory in recent months, seem to have sat on the knowledge that they could prove a vast number of crimes were committed, for at least two years and not done anything about it.

One might, indeed, ask precisely why they didn’t.

Perhaps we need a more active system for pursuing prosecutions, and one that is somewhat independent of the political establishment.

47. Charlieman

Tim Worstall made a few valid points in his first interjection. Piss poor reporting spreads the idea that mobile telephone conversations were intercepted (unlikely because it requires GCHQ skills or a tap at the phone provider on their switches), so it is more credible that voice mail boxes were accessed using commonly known PINs. There is a recent case where mobile phones have been intercepted (Google for “greek mobile phone rootkit”) but I find it difficult to swallow in this case.

Other allegations against NOTW are that they employed investigators to access the Police National Computer and DVLA databases. Trust Gordon: the information stored in the national ID database will be secure.

Employing an investigator implies that some distancing is sought by the requester and provider. It would be fair to assume that the requester used an intermediary to avoid direct bribery of a civil servant. The requester understood the legal consequences of their action and attempted to mitigate against them.

In the USA, those who suffer data abuse are able to pursue the data holder (in this case, mobile phone companies). If you are relying on the default PIN, you probably don’t have much of a legal case. You may have a case if the data holder did not inform you that information has been accessed illegally.

What a supercilious little shit Cameron is. (No, no,……no story here…….. my public relations man is doing a good job for the Tory party so who cares what he got up to when he worked for Murdoch.)

This would be the same Cameron who jumps on any thing done by the his political opponents and with the help of his army of hypocritical bloggers like Ian (I have no credibility) Dale, and his media mates makes it into a huge crises.

So lets get this right. According to the hypercritical New Tory party Alan Sugar must give up his programme The Apprentice because Sugar has expressed support for Gordon Brown. But Cameron’s media guy can stay in his job even though he was working for a newspaper that was hacking into peoples phone mail and paying millions of compensation to keep the victims quiet. Conservative justice, straight from out of the Met.

As I have said before I really do laugh at all these idiot Liberals who are going to vote for this reptile because they think he has changed the Tory party. Boy are they in for a shock.

And as for the PCC. Everybody know that the PCC stands for the Prince Charles Complaints Commission. They only act when Royals are being looked into.

If the case was prosecuted, would the court require evidence regarding not only what ‘hacking’ entails but also, and perhaps more importantly, what was obtained?

If so, it might be in the interests of The Man to let this go, no?

Tim>Hmmm. Certainly when we start talking about Ministers (isn’t John Prescott saying he was caught up in this) then it’s their own stupid damn fault. If you’re going to pretend to run the country then you really ought to take the most basic security procedures.

Most of that is true, but it doesn’t justify a possible offence just to get a story, unless there is a hell of a public interest defence – as there was for the Telegraph in the Expenses story.

Claude>Tim Worstall, I take it you think women wearing mini-skirts when they walk back from nightclubs at 3am are also being dumb?

That depends where they walk. If I walk somewhere where I am more likely to be attacked, I’m being dumb too. Leaving your car keys where a thief can get them through the letter box is dumb, as is setting your password to “password”. The statement doesn’t become controversial until you start to justify a crime from it. A dumb victim is still a victim.

The points that interest me particularly:

I’m astonished by Yates of the Yard. His declaring that no evidence could be found is just asking to be embarrassed by people who go and find it.

That people who had been targeted were not informed by the police. Is that professional?

The Gary McKinnon comparison. I think this “fools who left passwords unset” “hacking” is not dissimlar to the weak security in place on US computers accessed by McKinnon. The difference in attitude is startling, but can we say “let McKinnon off” if we are demanding that Coulson – IF guilty – be flogged.

#48
Another professional toss arguer.

Hello? The NOTW paid a massive amount to settle out of court and gag hacking victims. Why did they do that if there was “not much of a legal case”?
Hello? Over a similar case (the only one that came out ‘properly’, two years ago), someone, Clive Goodman from the NOTW was JAILED.
Hello? Did you read what Andrew Neil said?

From those servants of the servants of the servants of the servants not a word against this vomit-inducing type of “journalism”.

52. Charlieman

@52

Read before exploding.

Matt @ 51, unlike Gary McKinnon, Coulson & co. haven’t admitted any crimes, don’t have Asperger’s, and don’t face being extradited to the USA under a one-sided treaty because the US authorities want to save face.

I think we can reasonably say try McKinnon here or let him off, and investigate Coulson & co for prima facie offences.

54. Charlieman

A simple explanation to Claude: “The NOTW paid a massive amount to settle out of court and gag hacking victims. Why did they do that if there was “not much of a legal case”?”

NOTW paid compensation because they used illegally obtained information as a story source. And no doubt the stories were damaging or embarrassing to the subjects. Thus financial damages were paid for injury to reputation AND (in conjunction with) illegal access to private data.

NOTW may have illegally accessed private information belonging to other people, without finding anything worth a story. That illegal intrusion deserves nominal compensation and an apology; but it isn’t much of a legal case and not worthy of £100,000 damages. But you might be able to sue the data holder for breach of trust if they didn’t tell you about illegal access. The argument would be that you were shocked that somebody had listened to private information and that you were not informed at the time of the leak; thus you might claim a more than nominal amount for emotional damage.

Just noted John B comment 9 July.

Sorry mate, but Libel Act 1843 is still on the statute books. S. 4 makes it criminal with max of two years.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Article: Coulsongate: a huge indictment of our system http://bit.ly/11M4Gi

  2. sunny hundal

    Coulsongate: a huge indictment of our system (by me) http://tr.im/ry6p

  3. Tim Ireland

    RT @pickledpolitics Coulsongate: a huge indictment of our system (by me) http://tr.im/ry6p #murdochgate

  4. Liberal Conspiracy

    Article: Coulsongate: a huge indictment of our system http://bit.ly/11M4Gi

  5. sunny hundal

    Coulsongate: a huge indictment of our system (by me) http://tr.im/ry6p

  6. Raincoat Optimism

    […] Andrew Neil: Nobody comes out well of this… Sunder Katwala: How Les Hi […] NewswireCoulsongate: a huge indictment of our system July 9, 2009It’s amusing to watch Tories try and dismiss this massive bombshell so easily. […]

  7. Liberal Conspiracy » The dark arts come back to haunt Coulson

    […] that this is the Graun out to get Andy Coulson in some sort of pact with Labour, as some Tory bloggers have claimed, especially considering just how critical the paper has been recently of Gordon Brown. Rather, this […]





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.