Coffee House

Convict the guilty. Keep the press free

25 June 2014

4:46 PM

25 June 2014

4:46 PM

We havleader-page-001 smaller 2e not heard much from Hugh Grant this week. Nor from Max Mosley, Steve Coogan or any of the other bizarre array of celebrities and moguls who wanted to use the phonehacking scandal as an excuse to end British press freedom. For some time, they argued that the press had become a law unto itself, and it was time for politicians to regulate it. We have just seen why such a draconian step is not necessary.

Hacking is already against the law, which is why £100 million has just been spent trying former executives of Rupert Murdoch’s News International. The woman who used to run the company, Rebekah Brooks, has been acquitted of all charges — after being investigated and scrutinised for three years solidly. Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, was convicted. Hardly a sign of a country where, as the Hacked Off campaigners have suggested, newspapers operate above the law.

David Cameron has said he is ‘very sorry’ for hiring Coulson as his spin doctor, and no wonder. Had he not brought him into 10 Downing Street, it’s unlikely that there would have been such interest in reopening the hacking case. It was investigative journalism that exposed the wrongdoing — the free press revealing flaws in other parts of the free press. Like MPs’ expenses, phone hacking was a scam justified in the belief that everyone else was doing it.

It is now clear to everyone that Cameron, himself a former PR man, ought to have asked more questions before hiring Coulson. But at the time, in the summer of 2007, Cameron was desperate. It looked as if a general election was about to be called, which probably would have ended in the Conservatives’ defeat and his resignation as party leader. At the time, senior Tories were talking about the ‘successor movement’ to a party which looked like it was about to take its last throw of the dice. Gordon Brown decided not to hold that election because the Tory party smartened up its act quickly, swapping ‘hug-a-hoodie’ waffle for serious promises of tax cuts. Coulson played a full part in this recovery.


So it’s easy to understand why Cameron did not probe too deeply into the extent of hacking in the tabloid newspaper world — perhaps a bit of him simply did not want to know. But in all the scrutiny of his behaviour, there has been nothing to suggest that Coulson acted anything but honourably throughout his time in government. Had Cameron hired someone such as Damian McBride, a character assassin who lay at the heart of Gordon Brown’s government, he would have a far bigger apology to make.

Ed Miliband is, technically, right to say that Cameron’s ‘hand-picked adviser was a criminal’. But Coulson is a criminal who behaved like a gentleman. McBride broke no law but behaved criminally. So let us not pretend that this exposes corruption at the heart of the Tory party, or that it has any wider party-political ramifications. We have now had four years of Cameron’s government, and have had much time to study its defects. Hiring poisonous spin doctors is not one of them.

The Metropolitan Police has rather more questions to answer, having spent so much time and money investigating what now looks like something rather less than the crime of the century. The Met seemed to react in panic — perhaps induced by the knowledge that they had been operating hand-in-glove with certain journalists for far too long, and were about to be rumbled. Like the Crown Prosecution Service, the police appear to have been swept away by the wave of hysteria.

It has suited Rupert Murdoch’s commercial opponents (including the BBC) to portray hacking as an evil which sprang from the blackness of his Australian heart. But it has steadily become clear that it was going on across the newspaper industry, in Britain and abroad. Hacking the voicemail of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler was indeed deplorable. But such crimes are now detected and punished: the newspaper responsible has been closed and its former editor faces jail. No new laws are needed: the existing ones have seen 40 journalists arrested.

All but 13 members of parliament voted for a Bill to end press freedom. Mercifully, this ‘Royal Charter’ has been ignored, as the press has instead declined to be regulated by politicians and retains its independence as it continues what is, for many, a fight for survival. Newspapers have lost more than a third of their circulation since the hacking scandal erupted. Each day, 1,500 people stop buying newspapers and never start again. Rather than being too strong, the press is weaker now than at any time in modern history. This was the ideal time for the enemies of press freedom to pounce. Luckily, the threat has been seen off, the law is being allowed to run its course and press freedom has been conserved. This is about the only comfort to be drawn from an episode which has reflected so badly on so many.

This is an extract from this week’s magazine, available 26 June.

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Show comments
  • Jimmy R

    The vast majority of the people who made a great deal of noise about ‘being hacked’, most of whom made a great deal of money because of the favourable, free publicity they received from the press, were only upset because their carefully polished and well crafted PR image had been exposed for the fraud it was.
    They were simply peeved because the press were not just printing only nice things about them and simply polishing their shiny public image and wished to ensure that in future the press only said nice helpful things about them.
    Their main aim of certain people was, and still is, to ensure they have complete control over their own public image with the press becoming terrified of challenging that carefully crafted image and, in many cases complaining about issues where there was absolutely no connection with phone hacking at all.
    Heck, one of the most vocal and persistent moaners even complained about the media publicising his immoral criminal behaviour in a public place, how hypocritical is that? Not only that but his complaints over that had nothing whatsoever to do with phone hacking but that was no bar to them being included as a deliberate attempt to use the phone hacking enquiry in an attempt to create a call for total censorship of the press.
    Much of the rest of the storm in a teacup were simply a politically motivated vendetta against a section of the media disliked, if not totally hated, for not slavishly following the demanded party line.

  • The_greyhound

    Out of curiosity, have we ever had the truth about the funding of the sinister Hacked Off lobby?

  • The_greyhound

    I am trying to decide if the BBC’s culpability in the Savile matter is greater than News International’s in this case.

    Savile’s crimes were far more serious than those of Coulson (who is mostly only guilty of giving professional publicity seekers the wrong kind of attention). So perhaps the idiot BBC would care to give this tired subject a rest.

  • Amanda

    If Cameron should apologize for anything, it’s for the appalling treatment of the Brookses by the arresting police (and no doubt afterwards: a bad start to a terrible ordeal for them). Mr Brooks says they were treated ‘like terrorists’, in a morning raid one might rue but not be shocked at in, say, Venezuela or anywhere east of the Danube. But in Britain it’s a burlesque of state power and is inexcusable. Mr Brooks is right: they were treated like terrorists not even common criminals, since most criminals aren’t violated so shabbily.

    How do you sleep, Mr Cameron?

    • pedestrianblogger

      I am sure that he sleeps very soundly indeed, as do all those who lack a conscience.

  • Ahobz

    Milliband (aka odiouth hypocwit)seems to have forgotten the six Labour MP convicted of expenses fraud, four of whom held government posts. Morley was Fisheries and a DEFRA Environment minister, MacShane was Europe minister, Moran an assistant Whip and Devine a PPS.

    These are criminals at the heart of government, Coulson was a media advisor/spokesman – he was only responsible for presenting the government’s programme to the country.

    • pedestrianblogger

      Excellent point. I wonder, by the way, if Coulson appeals and his appeal is upheld, will Miliband apologise for his infantile comment. His past record would tend to indicate that he won’t.

  • EppingBlogger

    As usual with Conservative / Cameron promises there were no “tax cuts” despite the “serious promises”. Are “serious promises” different from concrete ones and are they any different from “trust me I’m a straight kinda guy”?

    Just thought I would ask.

    And don’t blame the economy – lower tax rates equals higher tax collection and many taxes are economically damaging. In any event, when did the Conservatives criticise the Brownite economy?

  • CharleyFarleyFive

    This was always about Brown and his cabal getting back at Murdoch after he dropped his paper’s support for them and instead turned to Cameron. As usual, nauseating levels of hypocrisy from Labour who fell over themselves to cosy up to Murdoch when he was in their camp.

    It’s about time the likes of the BBC and the Guardian made clear the practise of phone hacking was widespread across the industry. We are I believe shortly to see trials relating to phone hacking at The Mirror, will they be reported with the same level of zeal by the left wing media?

  • Weygand

    While I am totally opposed the dangerous antics of Hacked Off, the fact that this episode has cost £100 million is an argument that the present system is not fit for purpose rather than proof of its success.
    Just think of what other uses such money could have been put and imagine how much such an outrageous figure will serve as a disincentive to pursue another enquiry of this nature.
    Sorry Mr Nelson but this suggests a simpler cheaper and speedier solution is needed rather than justifying the status quo.

    • HookesLaw

      Well you make a good point assuming your figures are even remotely true. £100 million is a ridicules sum. Mr Nelson has his hobby horse and he is intent on riding it. The press are self serving. As such we are incredibly badly served by the press – but the big heads of the media do not see it that way.

    • Mr Grumpy

      Yes, censors are so much cheaper than lawyers.

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  • Grey Wolf

    New Labour is hardly in a position to speak about the toxicity of spin doctors. Let us not forget Campbell and the harm he brought upon this country.

  • Frank

    In fairness to David Cameron, it was very difficult, if not impossible, for any non-journalist in 2007 to comprehend the wide-spread nature and depth of the criminality (hacking and bribing of police and civil servants) present in some newspapers. I therefore think that it was understandable that Cameron was prepared to accept Coulson’s word without too much greater investigation and it should be kept in mind that Cameron was not the PM at this point.
    Having seen the Channel 4 News interview with another of the top brass at News Intl, one is left with a number of impressions, firstly that the talent gene pool was very poor quality indeed, and secondly that the interview reminded me of the Nuremburg Trials in the sense that here was a managing editor effectively claiming that he had seen nothing and was un-aware of what was going on in his newspaper during the five years in question (I say “effectively” as he refused to answer the question saying that he had been cleared by the trial).
    It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the trial was a pretty mediocre stab at law enforcement!

    • HookesLaw

      I suppose the issue revolves around did editors know as opposed to were suspicious of how information was obtained. How culpable are they if they turn a blind eye or do not ask questions.
      Coulson has been found guilty of jut one count of ordering (I assume) so called phone hacking. He has not been found guilty of bribing public officials – although here its perhaps a question of these officials offering stories for money rather than bribing.

    • ButcombeMan

      Not right Frank.

      Any Private Investigator or security expert also knew. I used to read the stories and intuitively know how they had been done. It was an open secret.

      It was such an open secret that I am very suspicious indeed about the role of Andy Hayman or others in MetPol

      • GUBU


        When the alleged use of a single word of Anglo Saxon origin at the gates of Downing Street can lead to police officers spending months interviewing each other, and thousands of man hours are spent trawling for unkind words on social media, senior police officers seem to have been strangely uninterested in investigating the possibility that thousands of mobile phones had been hacked – until they had no choice but to act.


        • ButcombeMan


          I explained “why” but the powers that be have deleted it.

          Truth evidently hurts.

  • wycombewanderer

    My own thoughts for what they are worth.

    Fleet Street isn’t that big, It has a revolving door policy for journalists who can leave one organisation and join a rival the next day, it has close links to the police of necessity and desire and also close links to the government of the day, with privy briefings and off the record snipings going on all day every day.

    So can anyone help me as to how a couple of journos could do this for so long without the government of the day, the police and the security services apparently not having a clue what was occurring?

    They all knew it was going on but ignored it because they were all at it in my opinion.

    • HookesLaw

      All very well but just who cares about the contents of Hugh Grants voicemail? Is this any big deal for the ‘security services’?
      Who does the Guardian employ to get its stories. The Guardian as I see it thinks its OK to publish contents of what traitors have stolen from their governments and undermine our national security. This is far more serious yet the Guardian runs a campaign that ruins a paper and costs hundreds of jobs and all over the obtaining of celebrity gossip.

  • Amanda

    The apology thing is posturing. The hacking thing has nothing to do with Coulson’s service to Cameron, as both of them know. *I* am sorry that a hundred mill of the hard-pressed taxpayers’ money had to be spent proving what most of us suspected anyway: that News Of The World is not the End of Life As We Know It. The money would have been far better spent bolstering the police and emergency services and a thousand other charitable goods (such as animal welfare). As it is, no one has benefited from this, except the dishonest Leftists in the Hacked Off campaign and their fellow travellers in government.

    • pedestrianblogger

      When it’s a £100 million of someone else’s money, it’s very easy to sign the cheque.

  • Smithersjones2013

    And just think all this furore is over what is effectively now obsolete equipment. Just wait till the media get their hands on the coming generations of mini flying drones in the next decade. They’ll be spying on people (mainly legally) and following them all over the place.

    That will make this Labour luvvie wankfest (Miliband must be oh so sore by now, the poor boy) seem like a non-event

  • realfish

    We have not heard much from Hugh Grant this week. Nor from Max Mosley, Steve Coogan or any of the other bizarre array of celebrities and moguls who wanted to use the phonehacking scandal as an excuse to end British press freedom

  • swatnan

    Its The Press that are gulty and should be in the dock, not innocent people minding their own business, excluding disgraced celebs and politicians.

  • @PhilKean1

    But who ARE the guilty?

    Are those who politicians who repeatedly cause damage, hardship and sometimes, even death – every bit as guilty as those who engage in ILLEGAL criminality?

    Today in Parliament was another of those many occasions that has seen irresponsible, short-sighted, incompetent ideologically-motivated Labour politicians seek to interfere in an area that will end up causing untold economic and social damage.
    In fact, the sheer madness of what Labour proposed today can be exposed using just 2 simple analogies.

    What would happen in these two instances if Labour successfully manage to persuade Tory Socialists to copy their policy of making all private tenancies for a minimum 3 year period?

    (1) – The family who need to rent their house out for 18 months because the father has been posted abroad for 2 years?
    (2) – The landlord whose circumstances have changed or who has fallen upon hard time and needs to sell their house at the end of a one year tenancy?

    It appears that Labour aren’t content with the already comprehensive list of damage their policies have caused since WW2 – they now want to destroy the private house sales and rental market.

    • HookesLaw

      Labour come out with a loony policy and you still manage to blame the tories.. Brilliant.

  • megamurph

    Phone hacking should never have been made a criminal offence. It is glorified eavesdropping. It is very bad manners and should be a civil offence based on breach of privacy and subject to swingeing damages especially if done for commercial gain. But no one should be sent to prison for it. Otherwise why not return to a world where slander and libel are criminal offences? Can anyone give me a good reason for the distinction?

    • Tom M

      Your post reminds me of my first reactions to phone hacking. In the days before smart electronic devices the watchword for speaking on the telephone “was mind what you say you never know who’s listening”. The exchange operator apart it was a lot more difficult then to eavesdrop on a conversation. The surprise to me is that people must be daft if they think anything sent into the ether these days could in any way remain private.

    • dado_trunking

      Do you want the ‘killing a swan’ or the ‘stealing a donut when everyone else is looting’ argument?

      • megamurph

        Both sound fascinating. Go for it.

        • dado_trunking

          Ok, here we go – this is the story of my sad life.

          In the early stages of my sorry life, I often went about my business going hungry. I had nothing to eat. One Sunday I went to my local park and killed a swan for immediate consumption – that’s how starved to the bone I was. I got locked up for two years.

          But don’t get me wrong, prison reformed me, I met a lot of good people inside. I studied finance and the day I got out I started working in the City. I worked myself thru’ the ranks, fast. I swapped billions at one point and even fixed the Libor once or twice. We made millions! No charge against me or my colleagues of course, only our employer was fined a few pennies.

          Yet I was sacked of course and moved to Tottenham. Soon , hunger befell me again – on the day of the riots. I just could not help it an nicked a donut in a broken shop window. CCTV finished me off – three years I got for reoffending. I think I’ll go back into banking now …

          This is the story of my sad life.

          • megamurph

            It may be a story but it’s not really the response to my question that you promised. Which is a bit disappointing.

            • dado_trunking

              Oh it is. I was speaking in metaphors.

              • the viceroy’s gin

                …is that what you and the sockpuppets do, lad?

          • Duke_Bouvier

            Another judge another day made very clear that relatively minor crimes during a riot are treated more seriously because they contribute to a lawless episode putting lives and property at great risk. To the chagrin of a number bunch of opportunistic looters.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        …it’s always entertaining when a multiple of your sockpuppets show up in a discussion, lad.

        Where’s the goat?

        • dado_trunking

          it’s curious isn’t it – the avatar of the (self-appointed?) sleeping blog policeman looks just like the one I replied to earlier. You’re not the same chap?

          Go on lad, give us your sad story of how you got into policing. Go for it.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            …come on, come on… let’s have that goat, lad. You can do it.

    • telemachus

      Further Cameron was quite correct to employ a press spokesman versed in these arts
      After all
      Everything is fair in love, war and politics

    • HookesLaw

      I struiggle to. No one has complained to the phone companies for making it possible. Phones are not hacked anyway. You dial in 0000 and hope to listen to a voice mail. The rather nasty accusation by The Guardian was proved false.

      • Alexsandr

        anyone with any sense turns off voice mail. If the call is important they will ring back.

      • rtj1211

        If you are so naive to believe that phones are not hacked you should have nothing to do with politics. If that is the case, every Director of every company in this country, every shareholder with greater than 5% of any company will agree to be genitally mutilated ifr they have ever engaged in it.

        I promise you that this would be akin to the 21st century Jews being punished, because hacking is endemic. Go ask Prince Charles. Go ask Arsene Wenger. Go ask Sky Sports. Go ask Tony Blair. Go ask Oxford University. Ditto Manchester University. Michael Arthur, VC of UCL.

        Etc etc etc.

        Now either grow up or realise how uneducated you are.

        • HookesLaw

          Well given that all you have to do is dial 0000 there is absolutely no reason why anyone should not do it. So talking about it being endemic is totally crass – almost as totally crass as comparing it to the extinction of 6 million Jews.

          You could argue the phone companies are guilty of something beause they do not press this issue of changing passwords on all their customers. I have not changed my password on my phone and anyone is more than entitled to hack in and listen to messages from the carpet fitter arranging a time to visit.

          • Duke_Bouvier

            Well, it started with identifying the phone carrier and then knowing the default code. But my recollection is that it also involved some blagging and/or bribing of telephone company staff.

      • milh0use

        Yep, you’re right, Mulcaire’s notebook was 2000 pages with the number “0000” scrawled on each one. And for that service the NotW were paying hundreds of thousands a year!

    • Smithersjones2013

      If you break into someones home and read their diaries you would be liable for breaking into their home. Why should breaking into their phone be any different.

      • SonofBoudica

        Because you don’t break in. You dial 0000 to see if they have been careless enough not to change the factory setting for their voicemail.

        • Dogzzz

          Exactly, it is the equivalent of them leaving their key in the lock as they leave the house. there is no breaking in required.

          • helicoil

            so it’s just trespass then?

      • megamurph

        I think it’s confusing to use words like “breaking into” a voicemail as a metaphore for what happens. To begin with, to me there is an enormous difference between dialling someone’s phone number even if they don’t want you to and jemmying a window and physically entering someone’s home.

        Most importantly, though, the phone hacking offence, which was only introduced in 2000 via the Blair government’s Orwellian Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, is designed to criminalise you for listening to other people’s voicemails – not for dialling their phone number.

        But while it’s a crime under RIPA for you to listen to their messages, it’s not a criminal offence for someone to read your private diaries, even if they do do it in the middle of committing other criminal offences such as burglary or being on your premises without your permission.

        Now while I don’t approve of someone snooping into your diaries – whether they are a relative in your house legally or a burglar who is there illegally – and as I say, I think there should be social and civil sanctions for what are actually breaches of privacy and decency rather than criminal offences – I do think we need to get this into proportion and apply a little logic to it.

        For instance if you’re going to criminalise telephone evesdropping, fairness says we should also criminalise other similar offences such as libel and slander. Why should it be a criminal offence to listen in to Rupert Murdoch’s voicemail messages but not to tell your wife and friends afterwards the (untrue) story you overheard in the pub about David Cameron’s penchant for sheep?

        The result of this farago has been utterly unconscionable amounts of time, money, judicial attention and above all moral outrage lavished on glorified eavesdropping, a witchhunt driven by the almost unhinged rage some people feel for Rupert Murdoch and the tabloids.

        In a country where we know (among other things) that thousands of girls suffer FGM yet no one – and certainly not the might of the political and judicial establishment – investigates or prosecutes the people responsible with even a tiny fraction of the passion they lavish on phone hacking, it seems to me that the “victims” of such evesdropping need to “check their privilege” and we all need to get a sense of proportion. There are more important things to spend our time and effort on.

      • Jimmy R

        No, it is more akin to persistently leaving your private diary lying around your desk in an office an thinking nobody is ever likely to take a peek, especially if you are somebody famous, of some notoriety even if only within your own place of work, or are somebody who is newsworthy. If you are daft enough to do that you can hardly seriously make a fuss if somebody opens it and takes a peek.

    • ButcombeMan

      One good reason for the distinction may be that interception of communications has to be within a legal framework. That happened after the Malone case. It is in our interests that it is.

  • DaveTheRave

    Convict the guilty?
    There are some in this land who will never face a trial. let alone get convicted for far greater crimes even than this.

    • telemachus


      • ButcombeMan

        No Bliar.

        • telemachus

          Do not think that Alastair Campbell, Blair’s equivalent in the current debate found himself in the Old Bailey

          • HookesLaw

            But he should have been for gross deriliction of his duty of care to an employee.

          • ButcombeMan

            No indeed. Maybe he should have done, for the phoney dossier.
            I am afraid no party has entirely clean hands.

  • HookesLaw

    Investigative journalism? A lying claim by the Guardian for which they gave a grudging apology more like.
    The Guardian, helped by the BBC one favours, was not interested in investigating anything – this one section of the press was only interested in bankrupting another section. The Guardian wanted to scupper News International from taking over SKY.

    You might believe the self serving rubbish you write but only a gullible moron would go along with you.

    • telemachus

      If that were the motivation then the Guardian did us all a favour
      Remember Smug Hunt would have traded Sky away months before

      • HookesLaw

        What business is of any minister ? Its the business of SKY and NI shareholders and the monopolies commission.
        The Guardian show why the press are not to be trusted. And even if you believe The Guardian, their accusations show why the press are not to be trusted. Yet our gormless self serving editor wants the press to be free to regulate itself. The press are always complaining about other organisations which fail in their regulation but they want to be uniquely above the law.

        • Alexsandr

          who cares about the print press. Its circulations are falling off a cliff. The only question is which will be first to go, the indy or the guardian.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …and you socialist nutters want to be uniquely fascistic in the destruction of freedom and liberty.

        • southerner

          Every post of yours is completely un-conservative. This is a classic example. And you fake indignation when we correctly identify you and the rest of the Camerluvvies as socialist loons.

          • dado_trunking

            Yet ten (!) well respected bloggers voted for that fatuous tripe. Isn’t it just astonishing?

            • the viceroy’s gin

              …it can’t be too astonishing to you, lad. You’re a Levesonista fascist under one of your other sockpuppets.

          • HookesLaw

            Do not be totally silly. What is wrong or non-conservative with wanting the press to speak the truth and be accountable for its more outrageous behaviour. As an example the hounding of the landlord of the murdered woman – just because he looked a bit weird and eccentric.
            I seem to remember a while back that ABC tried to smear George Bush until it was very quickly shown that the documents they had published were forgeries. They chose not to make the effort to investigate too deeply themselves they liked the story too much.

            I think its fair comment to criticise the press.

            Its a moot point with me as to whether phone hacking is or should be considered illegal, but the uses to which it is put and the hounding and spreading gossip about people is another matter. The press should be responsible and held accountable. Do you think the press should be the only organisation in the world to be above criticism?

            • southerner

              Using crass examples of bad behaviour as evidence in a discussion about one of the principle conservative principles of a free press. Or deploying “its (sic) fair comment to criticise the press”. Honestly, it’s like arguing with a child.

              • the viceroy’s gin

                It’s typical socialist nutter tactics, and yes, they’re despicable.

                • southerner

                  Indeed. If ever proof were needed of Hookey’s socialist nutter credentials you’ve got Tele agreeing with him.
                  Cameron’s response to criminality at one paper was to call for an enquiry to crush the free press. It wasn’t just to hide his closeness to Murdoch. It’s what socialists instinctively do.

            • Duke_Bouvier

              The judge seemed to have no problem finding phone hacking illegal under current law. Only you – who is not I imagine a judge.

        • telemachus

          He is far from gormless
          Just misguided
          Otherwise I agree with you

        • Duke_Bouvier

          This week shows clearly that journalists are not above the law. The point of Hacked Offs ‘charter’ is to give politicians a degree of editorial control over newspapers. I think most of us can see the difference.

  • dalai guevara

    Whilst any true democrat will support the Spectators line, a few question remain unanswered if not wholly unsatisfactory.

    1- does anyone still believe in single fall guy scenarios?
    2- the single fall guy is proven guilty in a single case?
    3- the single fall guy proven guilty in a single case will now face the same treatment as the guy convicted for mortgage fraud and sent to high security prison?

    I mean, come on, pull the other one.

    • JoeDM

      P!ssing in the wind.

      The evidence was set before a jury and the verdict given.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …pull the other what?

      …the other sockpuppet?