Thursday, 7 July 2011

Some of the real politics behind 'hackgate'

Your correspondent is rarely accused of being naive. If anyone tries, I usually treat them to a chilling blast of cynicism, just to make sure. And this blogger, at least, has been a journalist in a national newsroom. There are few more pressurised or terrifying places. It's a rough-and-tumble world.

But even I've got to say that the phone hacking affair at The News of the World is extraordinary.

Not for the revelation that hacks intercept communications. They've done it all the time, across many titles, for many years. If you're caught in any sort of media storm, I would (for instance) shred everything before it goes in your bins. Otherwise it might well end up in the papers the next day.

Nor for the renewed object lesson that politics is full of lies and half-truths. What a surprise.

No. The really amazing thing is that News of the World journalists thought that their wilder shores of impropriety were a good idea - and that they got away with it for so long. I remember being hauled over the coals by my paper's in-house lawyer when I used a nasty word about a big company. Goodness only knows what she would have said had I informed her that I was illegally bribing police officers to get details of addresses, paying off people in telephone copmanies to get ex-directory numbers, monitoring phone messages and interfering with high-profile murder operations. I think she may well have laid down and died on the spot. Fear of Rupert Murdoch's ire (above) should have kept them more firmly in line than this.

Because the fall-out of being discovered is much, much worse than just having some blander stories with fewer quotes. Your contacts revealed. Massive reputational damage. Big advertisers pulling out. Your bosses' faces all over rival front pages. Potential privacy legislation. The phrase 'disaster' doesn't really cover it. There's too much excrement flying to even see the fan. NI's American-Australian proprietor will not be pleased, that's for sure.

The whole sorry mess also exposes some of the realities behind British politics - its 'hidden wiring', in Peter Hennessy's memorable phrase. The press may lie low for a while. But post-war British history shows us that they'll be back, as red in tooth and claw as ever. Previous governments have tried to take them on. The Vassall spy case of 1962 helped to do for Harold Macmillan when journalists were prosecuted for refusing to reveal their sources. When they got the opportunity the next year (over the Profumo scandal) the press effectively and efficiently wiped out the Prime Minister's whole career and reputation. Harold Wilson slapped 'D-Notices' on the press, preventing them publishing stories on 'security' grounds. His relationship with the press, and his public image, always struggled to recover. David Mellor famously told journalists they were 'drinking in the last chance saloon'. Revenge (mostly self-inflicted) duly followed. The death of Diana, Princess and Wales, was followed by a wave of revulsion against paparazzi photographers hired by newspapers. But did anything really lasting come out of that - anything akin to the public boycott of The Sun on Merseyside following a particularly nasty headline about the Hillsborough stadium disaster? Not really.

TV and radio have been full of talk, these past few days, of 'sea changes' and 'fundamental turning points'. I'm not so sure. The British press is virulent, opinionated, persistent, occasionally brilliant - and very, very powerful.

David Cameron will be treading carefully. He has to make sure that he isn't seen as too close to News International Executives James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, lest the public identify him with their perceived wrongdoing. But he knows that if he comes out too strongly against the press, they'll bide their time. Then they'll tear him to shreds.

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