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How journalists played down the Sun’s phone-hacking


3:29 pm - March 18th 2013

by Sunny Hundal    


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Today the Sun newspaper admitted ‘serious wrongdoing and misuse of private information’ from the stolen phone of the Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh.

It has now paid damages to the tune of £50,000 for admitting to this. This happened in October 2010, when the current editor Dominic Mohan was still running the newspaper.

But what’s also very significant is how journalists across Fleet Street earlier reported on this investigation. This includes Nick Cohen, who was yesterday attacking pesky liberals for wanting the return of Stalinism.

The Guardian, July 2012:

[Rhodri Phillips] was arrested on suspicion of “handling stolen goods” in relation to an incident said to have taken place over a year ago, when a reader phoned in to say they had found what they thought was an MP’s mobile phone on a train. Sources say no story emanated from the call-in and the mobile was handed back to the MP.

The phone is thought to have belonged to Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh. An assistant in her office said she could not comment “for legal reasons”.

That’s interesting.

Also in July 2012, Nick Cohen wrote a column for the Observer with the title: Persecuting the press diminishes us all.

Here is a key segment from that column:

Rhodri Phillips was the 21st journalist arrested as part of the Elveden bribes enquiry. If it had happened in Russia, Iran or an African dictatorship, readers of the Observer would know what to expect. Amnesty International and Index on Censorship would scream their heads off about the need for a free press to scrutinise power. Intellectuals would send a round robin to the liberal press. There would be questions in Parliament, perhaps a Radio 4 documentary.

But Phillips works for Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, so no one gives a damn, even though his alleged offence is so thin it breaks like rice paper. Years ago, the police claim, Phillips was on the night desk of the Sun when a man called to say he had found an MP’s phone. Phillips wondered whether he could write a report along the lines of “security breached as politician loses mobile”. He left a memo for the news desk, which decided not to cover the story.

Anyone would ask why a columnist is passing judgement on a case that hadn’t even been fully investigated by the police then.

But Nick Cohen wasn’t alone in doing so.

The Telegraph also reported around the same time:

Mr Phillips went to meet the man and established that the phone probably had been lost by an MP but that it was not of interest to the tabloid. On his return to the office, he is said to have left a memo for news editors detailing the incident and according to Sun insiders, this was the basis for his arrest.

Colleagues are understood to be particularly incensed by this arrest as they insist he was simply doing his job and is a “professional, straight down the line reporter”.

It doesn’t look like the Telegraph had the full story either.

Now that the Sun has admitted to serious wrong-doing, will the likes of Nick Cohen apologise for trying to pass off such incidents as examples of police over-reach? Given his past record, I doubt it.

Update: Nick Cohen claims on Twitter that the journalist in question was incident was innocent and wrongly fired by The Sun.

I asked him why he criticised the police (rather than the Sun) in his column, and whether the police were wrong to launch the investigation in light of today. No answer to either question.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


The regulation Mr Cameron plans to introduce with the backing of Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband has nothing to do with phone hacking. For example, it will include Liberal Conspiracy, even though this site has never been involved in phone hacking.

I like how Cohen wrote that the offence happened ‘years ago’ as if it were nearly outside the statute of limitations. Yet it was only 21 months prior to his article.

What isn’t mentioned is that Siobhan McDonagh was shown a large wad of papers by the police. They turned out be to texts from her phone, categorised and formatted into emails.

Was this just routine with lost mobiles at NI?

Bollocks it was.

4. organic cheeseboard

Well, Nick Cohen is just doing what he usually does there, i.e. taking the side of his source totally uncritically since it suits his prejudices.

I did have a feeling, however, that this would probably not be the full story – that, in fact, his ‘memo’ probably contained a number to call if people wanted to follow up the story, ie get the phone and look at it, ie facilitating a crime; and so it has transpired.

5. So Much for Subtlety

I don’t think the problem is that they are playing down anything. It is that they are not objecting loudly to the two class division of modern Britain.

If my mobile phone was stolen and hacked by a petty thief, the police would do nothing. As in fact I can assure you as it has happened to a friend. They would not bother to knock on a door if you gave them the thief’s name and address. But somehow when an MP’s mobile is stolen, then it is worth more investigation, time and resources than the Yorkshire Ripper.

I have said before, this is a monumental change to the de facto constitution. We have always relied on the media to investigate – some times on the right side of the law, some times not. Now the government is going to unilaterally change the way that British politics works without much of a debate at all. Maybe we want to go down this road. Maybe not. But we ought to talk about what is the biggest change to the constitution since we went into the EU.

“We have always relied on the media to investigate – some times on the right side of the law, some times not”
Why should any member of society be able to break the law. If they cannot do their job within the confines of the law they cannot be very good.

“Now the government is going to unilaterally change the way that British politics works without much of a debate at all”
Absolute tosh, I don’t approve of the legislation , mainly because of the whinging from the press. It might be even more transparent. Also the golden age of press freedom. Do you mean when members of royalty were found having affairs in the 50’s, the stories were then spiked by a combination of D notices and drinks and dinners between editors, media barons and politicians.

7. So Much for Subtlety

6. P. Diddy

Why should any member of society be able to break the law. If they cannot do their job within the confines of the law they cannot be very good.

Actually this is not so clear cut. It is not immediately obvious what law they broke by ringing up someone’s stored messages and typing the standard password. Why should they? Perhaps not. But Deep Throat broke the law. Every other confidential leak breaks the law. You saying all of this should be illegal?

Absolute tosh, I don’t approve of the legislation , mainly because of the whinging from the press. It might be even more transparent. Also the golden age of press freedom. Do you mean when members of royalty were found having affairs in the 50?s, the stories were then spiked by a combination of D notices and drinks and dinners between editors, media barons and politicians.

I am impressed by the deep thinking exhibited so often here at LC. Even assuming your claim is true – and it isn’t as British newspapers were run by, among others, the British Communist Party who were not all that open to the drinks and dinners approach. And they would have loved a D Notice. But leaving that aside. You are seriously claiming that a government-appointed quango with legislative power to punish journalists and editors is superior to an informal chat? Because we used to have a half heart piss weak system of private understandings it is progress to have a thorough going system of political censorship? Blimey.

SMFS: “Because we used to have a half heart piss weak system of private understandings it is progress to have a thorough going system of political censorship?”

Until someone can explain how the *specific* rules proposed can allow a minister to silence a newspaper/journalist whose coverage they dislike, I find it hard to take the idea that this is “political censorship” seriously…

That doesn’t mean I’m not worried – ill-written rules could drive bloggers and independent publications (including Private Eye) to the wall.

I’d argue what is really needed is reform of the libel laws, which currently basically amount in practice to “you can’t criticise anyone rich enough to hire a good lawyer, but deliberately defamatory lies about vaguely defined groups or anyone too weak to fight back are just fine”.

“Actually this is not so clear cut. It is not immediately obvious what law they broke by ringing up someone’s stored messages and typing the standard password.”
It is actually. So is corrupting police officers and handling stolen goods.
” Even assuming your claim is true ”
I think that a certain consort of a present monrach was implicated in behaving a little naughty. It was all over the foreign press but not one mention in the British press

“– and it isn’t as British newspapers were run by, among others, the British Communist Party who were not all that open to the drinks and dinners approach.”
Strange comment. We are talking about freedom of the press

“You are seriously claiming that a government-appointed quango with legislative power to punish journalists and editors is superior to an informal chat?”
Yes it would be transparent

going system of political censorship?
Name one part of the legislation that stops the right spite of Cohen in his column.

10. So Much for Subtlety

8. jungle

Until someone can explain how the *specific* rules proposed can allow a minister to silence a newspaper/journalist whose coverage they dislike, I find it hard to take the idea that this is “political censorship” seriously…

Sure. And just because you can’t name a *specific* victim of Pol Pot’s genocide, it didn’t happen, right? The mere fact of government supervision is chilling in and of itself. Or so you would normally agree if you did not let your hatred of Murdoch cloud your judgement.

I’d argue what is really needed is reform of the libel laws, which currently basically amount in practice to “you can’t criticise anyone rich enough to hire a good lawyer, but deliberately defamatory lies about vaguely defined groups or anyone too weak to fight back are just fine”.

And how would you reform the laws to do that? You are also, of course, wrong. McDonald’s had the most expensive lawyers money could buy. They lost.

9. Cowboy

It is actually. So is corrupting police officers and handling stolen goods.

It is now. Corrupting police officers is an interesting one. But one people tolerated for a long time. The police don’t care about mobile phones when normal people have them stolen.

I think that a certain consort of a present monrach was implicated in behaving a little naughty. It was all over the foreign press but not one mention in the British press

So what? Private Eye has mentioned it. The question is why would allowing Her Maj’s government to punish them – and every foreign newspaper read by a single person in the UK – would improve matters.

Strange comment. We are talking about freedom of the press

So we are. Which means the CPGB could publish their own paper. Which they did. And ignore informal chats. Which they also did. Now they will be covered by an official government body which can punish them.

Yes it would be transparent

Great. It doesn’t even look that transparent to me. Just as similar bodies dealing with videos and advertising are not. But we will have to see what the actual proposals are.

“It is actually. So is corrupting police officers and handling stolen goods.

It is now. Corrupting police officers is an interesting one. But one people tolerated for a long time. The police don’t care about mobile phones when normal people have them stolen.”
Isn’t that the point, the legislation has been put in place to stop and highlighting these practices..

“I think that a certain consort of a present monarch was implicated in behaving a little naughty. It was all over the foreign press but not one mention in the British press
So what? Private Eye has mentioned it. The question is why would allowing Her Maj’s government to punish them – and every foreign newspaper read by a single person in the UK – would improve matters.”
We are talking about press freedom, your OK with a poor gender changing teacher get it full barrels but the richest and most powerful family in the country to be given a free ride. Actually Private eye published well after the incidents.
What you are saying is that a public story that has implications for the state was spiked because of conservations at the Garrick. You call that a free press.
“Strange comment. We are talking about freedom of the press

So we are. Which means the CPGB could publish their own paper. Which they did. And ignore informal chats. Which they also did. Now they will be covered by an official government body which can punish them.”
Why should there be just useless and private chats, surely that is the way of the politburo.
Answer me these questions
1. Explain to me how any political story the press will not be able to publish under this legislation.
2. Will it stop 95% of press supporting the government?
3. How will it stop investigative reporting, as long as it is done legally?

“Yes it would be transparent

Great. It doesn’t even look that transparent to me. Just as similar bodies dealing with videos and advertising are not. But we will have to see what the actual proposals are.”
The present moment many stories are spiked, which may have huge implications, which the public never will know. Believe it or not the legislation might work to the press’s advantage. Most of the cases will come out backing the press, and there public perception as lying right wing creeps might be changed.
I doubt that last point though.


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