Why we need a public inquiry into the phone-hacking revelations


9:02 am - April 11th 2011

by Sunder Katwala    


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The News International statement admitting culpability over widspread phone-hacking at the News of the World – and the failure to properly investigate it even after a reporter was sent to jail – was an extraordinary development.

However, the most troubling questions are not for News International, but for the police (non-) investigation. Why the Metropolitan Police appear to have had a quiet determination not to notice evidence and to ignore leads raises more troubling questions about the effectiveness and non-partiality of the rule of law in this country.

There are certainly positive features in having a non-deferential and even aggressive media culture in Britain. But none of us want to believe that Britain is a society in which some organisations are so powerful that believe that they can break the law with impunity, and appear to have good reasons to do so.

The most plausible hypothesis to explain News International’s approach to the crisis to date is that the media group retained confidence that they had sufficient leverage over policemen, politicians and press watchdogs to be able to make any awkward questions go away, partly on the grounds that they command sufficient fear that those supposed to be powers in the land may well be rational to fear the professional and political consequences of getting on their wrong side

Most national media outlets has shown considerably less interest in these issues than it would have done had the allegations of illegality been made against a bank, law firm, supermarket or quango. (And just imagine if it had been the BBC!).

Despite crucial interventions from individual politicians, such as the persistence of Labour MP Tom Watson and the willingness of Tory select committee chair John Whittingdale to reopen the issue, it would be wise not to rely on the political parties to ensure that the truth comes out.

Labour communications chief Tom Baldwin’s memo to shadow cabinet members was testimony to how each of the major parties will remain wary of tangling with a wounded beast. The departure of Coulson should have made it easier for Conservatives to treat the issues on their merits, but the desire for good relationships with the Murdoch papers and a fear that the issue could still rebound on David Cameron.

So civic voices may have to take the lead, and seek to build support from all political perspectives too. Brian Cathcart is quite right to say that a public inquiry is needed. He notes that former Tory party chairman Norman Fowler, now a peer, has made a similar call.

If we want to get to the heart of these issues, we will need to find coalitions of voices in civic society and prepared to work across party boundaries to build support for a robust investigation into the affair and the cover-up.

Any inquiry would also need to be headed by a figure whose personal integrity is respected across the political spectrum.

May I be the first to propose one excellent candidate: the former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major.


Cross-posted from Next Left, which has a longer version

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


I nearly fell for it until the mention of Major a member of the Ex Presidents
A bought man.

@Sunder, hear here.

“However, the most troubling questions are not for News International, but for the police (non-) investigation. Why the Metropolitan Police appear to have had a quiet determination not to notice evidence and to ignore leads”

Indeed. But an even more troubling question is why a large section of our political and jourmalistic elite appear to have had a quiet determination not to notice the implications of this story. It appears that only this weekend they have woken up to the possibility that this is a story that has legs and has implications for how our police and our democracy function. Only when News International has issued a statement, and the Police appear to be investigating more seriously, do they realise what has been happening. The signs were clear from the Guardian articles that there was a serious problem yet they chose to stay silent.

I fear that it may be too late for a public inquiry, and it may only serve to hinder the police investigations that are now underway. If you’d suggested a public inquiry a year ago I would have agreed with you, but isn’t the problem now out in the open.

Why do the political class still trot out the same bullshit that the media has no effect on elections? If that was true why has every Prime Minister since Thatcher bend over and taken it up the arse from Uncle Rupert? Why do the tories get so worked up about the BBC?

Every time Rupert Bear picks his party to support at an election the political class devote huge time to this issue , while at the same time telling their electorate that the media has no power. Enough of these lies and deceits. We all know that mass circulation newspapers, with a very diverse readership have huge power. The Sun, News of the World , and the Mail are the most powerful newspapers in the UK, because they have both those ingredients.

Murdoch and his creepy family need to be cut down to size. Politicians of all parties should stop trying to gain small short term advantage by giving Murdoch what ever he wants, in return for support for a couple of years. Murdoch’s promises have the value of all tyrants promises…..Fuck all.

There are certainly positive features in having a non-deferential and even aggressive media culture in Britain.

Actually, what’s depressing is that it’s a media culture which is both deferential and intrusive. (So, they were aggressive enough for the hacking but the media’s reaction to it has been tame as a newborn lamb.) It depends on where its owner’s allegiances fall.

So, they were aggressive enough for the hacking but the media’s reaction to it has been tame as a newborn lamb.

That’s easily explained: they were all at it. All papers believe in the right to break the law in pursuit of a story. The gutter press do it in pursuit of celebrities and footballers; the broadsheets do it for political and ‘public interest’ stories. When the story first broke there was a list of the papers who had used the same private investigator as the NoTW. They were pretty much all there.

It’s the same reason that politicians were so muted in their initial reactions to the expenses scandal.

“There are certainly positive features in having a non-deferential and even aggressive media culture in Britain.”

Well there would be, if the media actually did their jobs and investigated serious issues. But – with a very small number of notable exceptions like Nick Davies – they don’t.

Case in point – the biggest “scandal” of the last few years was over MP’s expenses. News value, lots, relevance to the average man in the street, zero.

If they’d spent that much effort investigating, say, the conduct and prospects of the Afghan war, or the health service, or, well, anything actually.

When they do get a bee in their bonnet about something important, they get it wrong. The MMR vaccine. “Climategate”. It goes on.

They are, almost to a man, simply too gutless to follow through on the serious stories because they believe that chasing the latest superficial “scandal” is a better way to sell papers.

The result is a media culture which is, on the surface, very critical of those in power but which is, in fact, unwilling to challenge them on anything substantial and which is therefore ultimately very docile.

@4: “If that was true why has every Prime Minister since Thatcher bend over and taken it up the arse from Uncle Rupert? Why do the tories get so worked up about the BBC?”

Come to think on it, why did David Cameron, on coming into office as PM, appoint Andy Coulson to work in Downing St as the director of Government Communications when Coulson was editor of the NOW at the time the phone hacking scandal first hit the headlines in 2007?
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6301243.stm

One of the worst aspects of this story is how corrupted the Met has become. Taking money and dinners out on the expense account of uncle Rupert is frightening.

News International’s coverage of police issues for the last 30 years can now seen to be nothing but Police propaganda. Which some of us have suspected for years. The various miss carriage of justice cases that the Met have fought against, so supported by the Murdoch press are now laid bare. I wonder how many officers at the Hillsborough tragedy were taking money from Murdoch. Certainly people like shit faced McKenzie were spinning like tops on behalf of the South Yorkshire police.

Not long ago James Murdoch was giving a speech attacking the BBC for their power. Talk about projection. If Cameron allows this power crazed family Sky on a platter he will go down in history has the most pathetic prime Minister on record.

3@ quite right, Without jumping into the trap of finding a topic to get back at the Press, I feel a thorough investigation by the
IPCC would be better with Major watching them as the press and the IPCC don’t have a great record with each toher after they wrongly reported on Ian Tomlisnon,Major has a chip on his shoulder after teh Sun crucified him after black wednesday

11. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

Why?

The vast majority high profile inquiries since the Scott inquiry have been worthless, they find whatever the state wants them to find and/or pull the ‘everyone’s to blame so no one can be punished’ horse shit.

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2010/11/30/wikileaks_uk_iraq_inquiry

“The vast majority high profile inquiries since the Scott inquiry have been worthless.”

Indeed, which is why I wonder whether these calls aren’t part of the damage-limitation exercise. And suggesting John Major to run the Inquiry doesn’t help.

As we know that the phone hacking (though i think that to refer to it as “hacking” is a bit lame when the victims simply couldn’t be bothered to change the factory default PIN codes when they bought mobile pholes) scandal, despite the current media focus on The News of the World and News International, is something that seems to have been pretty routine throughout the media, I for one would welcome a public inquiry.

That Newspapers who have themselves indulged in this practice should be making hay at the present by focussing solely on the sins of the Murdoch Press is pretty deplorable.

Time to find out what all of them have been up to I think.

“Time to find out what all of them have been up to I think.”

Maybe. But also time to find out whether Ms Wade actually went horse-riding with David Cameron, to finds out what other contacts the Murdoch “family” has with senior politicians, how a paper like NOTW uses all this information that they hold about slebs and politicians, the relations between the police and the Murdoch press, and to find out what Yates was thinking when he didn’t look for hard for evidence.

15. Merrymaker

I do not object to a public enquiry, but I cannot see it moving the general public one way or another. Last Friday I conducted my usual weekly poll of public opinion (fellow boozers at my local). The phone hacking affair created much merriment. Points made were: everyone knows (all) the papers will do anything for a story – who cares, the various celebrities mentioned should grab the money and run, offers were made by those present to allow their phones to be hacked for the price of a couple of rounds of beer, anyone who hacked Prescott’s phone should watch out – they could finish up with a black eye, plus various other comments of a more ribald nature. Would the revelations cause anyone present to stop buying the Sun, NoW, or Times, or stop watching Sky? No. Now this sample is not MORI, but it does make me wonder how much the public at large cares about this story.

16. Planeshift

“it does make me wonder how much the public at large cares about this story.”

Shorter tories: “go away and watch the footie”

17. Rural Rides

If any of the Labour party leadership had an ounce of courage, this is an opportunity to rid themselves of Murdoch(s) for the foreseeable future. Intercepting the communications of cabinet ministers. Just think about that for a moment.

So, why aren’t the opposition front benches demanding an emergency debate? Who knows what about whom maybe? All of them sitting there with deadly information – so it’s some kind of Mutually Assured Destruction stand-off?

It’s sure as hell something of the sort. Much respect to the Guardian for its persistence.

@ 14.

I wouldn’t disagree with you – but I still want to know what the rest of the press has been up to – who knows, some if it might shake us all up even more.

As an aside, I notice that Independent are telling us that their journalists haven’t been engaging in these dubious practices. I can’t help wondering if this might explain why their sales are so low.

19. Charlieman

The acknowledged and alleged offences are sufficient for police investigation. It might be pertinent for the Met to accept that investigation should be conducted by another police constabulary.

I disagree about a public or judicial inquiry. The purpose of an investigation should be about prosecution, hence the Met being disqualified. Public inquiries are about what happened in the past, reconciliation. This investigation needs to be about what happened recently and to deliver quick prosecutions.

As Charlieman says, there are apparent grounds for prosecution or disciplinary procedures of a number of individuals and organisations. An inquiry might get in the way of that, so let’s move forward with the investigations that might lead to prosecution or disciplinary procedures.

At a later date an Inquiry might be needed: to what extent, and how, did an organisation like NI gain influence over institutions in this country and how can that be removed and avoided in future?


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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