When readers’ trust is betrayed

07.07.11 Publication:

British journalists can often be annoyingly arrogant and self-important, even while they pretend to disparage themselves as being even less popular than politicians and used-car dealers. The scandal now exploding in London looks set to explain both of these contradictory claims. And as it does so it is going to damage people and institutions ranging from David Cameron, the prime minister, to Rupert Murdoch, the country´s most-powerful media owner, to many of Britain´s regional police forces, including London´s Metropolitan Police.

Everyone has known, for hundreds of years, that some journalists will do virtually anything to get, or if necessary create, a story, in all countries but certainly in Britain, with its very competitive national press. An old saying in Fleet Street, the ancient (but now virtually vacated) home of London´s press, is that what a good journalist needs is a strong pair of legs and rat-like cunning. Both are true, but the question now is how far that cunning can go before it ends up breaking the law and destroying the public´s trust.

This story has taken a long time to emerge. Four years ago, it became clear that some journalists at the country´s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, the News of the World, had gone too far. Their correspondent covering the Royal Family was convicted of using a private detective to hack illegally into voice messages on the mobile phones of various princes and their friends, and both men were jailed. The then direttore of the paper, Andy Coulson, resigned but claimed to have known nothing about what was going on.

That history is worth telling because of what did not then happen—which in turn explains why this scandal is important, and why British journalists have been so arrogant in recent years. This was that there was no public inquiry and no real investigation. The News of the World´s owners, Rupert Murdoch´s News International, claimed that this had been an isolated case of misconduct by a rogue, unauthorized journalist. When other celebrities and politicians began to claim that their phones had also been hacked into, the police did begin an investigation. But they claimed to find no evidence of any further wrong-doing.

So two years later, the Conservative Party´s leader, David Cameron, felt able to hire Mr Coulson as his head of communications, a job he kept when Mr Cameron was elected prime minister in May 2010. But over the past nine months, more and more revelations have emerged, confirming that far from being an isolated case, this illegal phone-hacking was in fact widespread at the newspaper. The idea that Mr Coulson knew nothing of it as direttore risked damaging either his credibility or his reputation for competence. For fear of becoming a political distraction, he resigned from 10 Downing Street in January, a move that the prime minister nevertheless said he considered noble and that he regretted.

Until now, the revelations essentially concerned celebrities, who command little public sympathy. But on July 5th, that changed, dramatically, when well-sourced allegations emerged that in 2002 the paper had used a private detective to hack into the mobile phone of a missing 13-year-old schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered. With that news, all Hell has broken loose, with further allegations emerging about phone hacking at the time of other sensational murder trials, and advertisers announcing they would withdraw their business from the News of the World.

This is politically explosive because of the connections between News Corporation and David Cameron—who happens also to have become friends with Rebekah Brooks, who was Mr Coulson´s predecessor as direttore of the News of the World, when the Dowler murder case occurred, and is now chief executive of Rupert Murdoch´s British company, News International. That political explosiveness is muted only by the fact that she and her organization were also close to the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In Italy, newspapers and broadcasters are often politically aligned, so friendships and allegiances change as governments do. In Britain that is less true, especially because Rupert Murdoch owns so many newspapers—The Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun and the News of the World—that all governments want him on their side, regardless of the political party. And all politicians are afraid of the damage that newspapers, both Mr Murdoch´s and competitors, can do to their reputations, so they are reluctant to challenge the press too fiercely.

The scandal is, however, institutionally explosive too. For the crucial reason why there has been no real investigation of this scandal over the past four years has been not just political cowardice but the fact that the police are themselves deeply involved. The Sun, the News of the World, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and other tabloids have become accustomed not just to receiving leaks of information from the police, which is normal, but also paying individual policemen for information—which is illegal.

So the police, it seems, have not wanted to look too closely at the phone hacking scandal because to do so would risk exposing their own extremely close relationships with journalists, some of them illegal. On Tuesday, as the scandal exploded, News International, announced that they were now passing to the police details of payments to policemen for information, authorized when Mr Coulson was direttore. In other words, details of bribes, authorized by the future head of communications for the prime minister.

What will happen now is hard to be sure of, as the scandal is still in mid-explosion. Probably, some sort of public inquiry into the conduct of journalists will be set up, either by the government or by Parliament. Probably, there will also be a serious investigation into bribery of the police, and the conduct of individual policemen. There will be resignations at the top of News International, and there will be pressure on the government to forbid Mr Murdoch from taking full control of BSkyB, his satellite TV company, though that will be legally tricky.

Finally, there will be a debate about introducing statutory public controls on the conduct of the press, which every serious journalist will be seriously worried about, as it would restrict our freedom of speech and investigation. As we argue against it, however, we will have to avoid sounding arrogant and self-important.