Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Committed to finding the truth?

When Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch, and James Murdoch appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee today, they will have a lot of questions to answer. The role of the News of the World, and its parent company, News International, is one that requires careful investigation.

The committee will also need to be very wary as it questions the trio, as there is now a big political element to this story, but that is largely irrelevant to the scope of the committee, and Lord Leveson's inquiry.

The members of the committee have been very aware of their responsibilities, John Whittingdale and Tom Watson especially, and have steered clear of making cheap party political points. Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have made it clear recently that they have both been too close to News International, and the media in general, so it strikes me that, whilst an important debate, it is not one for this particular case.

The biggest political story surrounding all this, is David Cameron's employment of Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications. Whilst many people, on both left and right, would like to see Cameron put under scrutiny for this, it is not relevant to the inquiry, unless (and I consider this unlikely) evidence emerges he knew what had been going on. There are plenty of legitimate questions to be asked regarding his judgement, but this is a political issue, to unfold on a different field.

Indeed, to a large extent, our leaders have kept this free of party points scoring. People mustn't confuse the back and forth over judgement, which has been happening from both sides, over who should employ whom, with the way they've approached the whole issue. David Cameron was indeed a little slow in fully agreeing to hold the inquiries, but like Gordon Brown in 2009, perhaps he was a little too reluctant to upset the media if he could avoid it. However, he has now set up these inquiries, and we must let the story unfold. The reason that so much headway has been made in a short time, is because politics has largely been absent, and its allowed the inquiries to be set up relatively quickly, and that is to the credit of Ed Miliband and David Cameron.

In the last few days there have been three high profile resignations, Rebekah Brooks, Sir John Stephenson and John Yates, but yesterday the latest victim may have been claimed with the death of Sean Hoare, the former News of the World entertainment corespondent who first raised the whole issue of phone hacking. Currently there is, according to the police, nothing suspicious about his death, but the stress and profile of the case recently, can take a toll on someone whose health is already damaged.

So, as the committee meets the protagonists today (Stephenson and Yates appear before the Home Affairs Committee) they will have to stick strictly to the issue of hacking, and what they knew. Anybody who tries to make this a political issue will be in danger of turning the event into even more of a circus than it is, and making that the story, when there are a lot of serious questions to be answered.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Will the lessons be learned?

David Cameron has been under a lot of pressure recently, and the irony is, that is a decision he took in opposition that is causing it. It must be remembered that Andy Coulson left his position as Communications Director in January, so had only served him as Prime Minister for eight months.

The whole phone hacking scandal came to light in 2006 when the News of the World's royal editor, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire were arrested, then subsequently gaoled for intercepting voicemails. Since then a large number of other allegations have arisen, most notably the hacking of, and deleting voicemails of Milly Dowler, a thirteen year old girl murdered in 2002.

The editor at the time the original story broke was Andy Coulson, who maintains that he knew nothing about what was going on, and it perhaps should be noted that Milly's death occurred in 2002, whilst Coulson did not become editor until 2003. However, he had been deputy editor under Rebekah Wade since 2000. As Wade (now Rebekah Brooks), also denies any knowledge, you have to ask who was actually in charge of the News of the World during the period 2000-2007, when Coulson resigned?

A big question surrounding this whole issue is when did the hacking start, and when did it end? It certainly appears to have occurred between 2002 and 2005,when Milly Dowler's voicemails were hacked, with some deleted, and (if the allegations turn out to be true) that the families of victims of the 7/7 bombings had their phones hacked. Was it an ongoing process when Wade and Coulson joined, and they were either kept in the dark, or did nothing to stop it, or did it begin under their watch, in which case, why didn't they know? Did they suspect information was being gained by underhand methods, but didn't ask the right questions?

A police investigation was launched under the leadership of Andy Hayman, and this subsequently failed to turn up any new information, beyond that already known around the activities of Goodman and Mulcaire. Hayman himself was a policeman of some repute, having first led the Special Branch's anti-terrorism group, and was in charge of the investigation into the 7/7 bombings in 2005. However, was resigned in December 2007 surrounding allegations regarding expenses, and relationships with fellow officers and a member of the IPCC.

Hayman appeared before the Home Affairs Committee earlier this week, in which he admitted receiving hospitality from people he was investigating, though he didn't consider this unusual, especially as operational matters weren't discussed. Whilst there is nothing to show that Hayman's relationship with News International employees affected the investigation, his subsequent employment by News International, perhaps indicates his relationship with them was too close to be in charge of such an important investigation.

An inevitable question arises which is, why didn't the Labour government in 2007 order an investigation into the hacking of the Royal family's voicemails? This is a perfectly legitimate question to ask, and the responses in the last few days haven't really cleared up the issue.

On July 6th, during the emergency debate, Alan Johnson, who was Home Secretary 2009-10 said that Commissioner John Yates (whose own appearnace before the media committee last week raised many questions) said it was just the obsession of a single newspaper, The Guardian, and a couple of backbenchers, Chris Bryant and Tom Watson. Johnson then added that they Home Office did look at whether there should be an independent review of the investigation, and he admitted, and John Whittingdale had already said, all the information seems to have been there. Johnson also claims that he was told that it was at that time out of the remit of the Independent press Complaints Commission, and that they should wait for the report of the DPP.

The Director of Public Prosecutions then said that based on the information given to him by the police, there was no cause for any further investigation. As Alan Johnson said that afternoon, "We were all swimming around wondering whether we were receiving the correct information." Indeed as now the issue of being seen to do something that may interfere with operational matters, and that was why they didn't act then, though he felt it right to do so now, even if it proved uncomfortable.

In the last few days it has emerged that Gordon Brown, who was Prime Minister at the time, did wish to hold an inquiry, but seems to have claimed he was blocked by Sir Gus O'Donnell the Cabinet Secretary. However, Sir Gus has released the memorandum he sent to Gordon Brown and refuted the claims he blocked an inquiry.

In his speech on Wednesday Gordon Brown said that the formal advice rejected an inquiry, and that whilst new facts existed and the News International had a culture of illegal activity, the select committee did not believe such activities still went on, and therefore were not urgent, particularly as those involved had been punished. he also said that, the memo said, "there was no evidence of systemic failure in the police, and anyway all their decisions had been checked with the Crown Prosecution Service;" and that the prominence of a general election would lead to accusations of political motivation. Brown also went to say that it warned that if there was a appeal made about a judicial inquiry it might succeed, and there was no case for reopening it in any form.

Today Sir Gus O'Donnell authorised the release of his original advice to Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister regarding the issues raised in his speech. On reading it seems to me quite clear that Sir Gus was not blocking any attempt to hold an inquiry, even if he had the power to do so. The advice is certainly weighted against holding an inquiry, but to my mind, all his arguments are reasonable.

It would seem to me the all parties here were seriously misled by the police especially on what they had discovered in their investigation, including the committee, which is why Sir Gus read their report as he did.

It appears that if he had really wanted to Gordon Brown could have ordered an inquiry to begin, and I'm sure that if he had consulted David Cameron, and possibly Nick Clegg, they could have avoided making it a political issue, and it would have continued after the election, as they have with Chilcot.

I don't think Gordon Brown has told any untruths here, but his interpretation of Sir Gus O'Donnell's advice did avoid causing any ructions with News International in the period leading up to the General Election. Therefore, I think subconsciously it suited the Prime Minister not to start investigating this issue at the time, and that it was in reality a political decision which I believe was mistaken, as by now we would have a clear picture of what had happened, and people facing retribution for their crimes.

Here is Sir Gus O'Donnell's advice so you can make up your own mind http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/cabinet-secretary-advice-judicial.pdf

Following his resignation from the News of the World in 2007, Andy Coulson went to work for David Cameron, when leader of the opposition, as his Communications Director in July that year, only two weeks before he appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee where he denied any knowledge of hacking.

It appears now that David Cameron was given a number of warnings that employing Coulson could well turn out to be a mistake. Cameron was himself doubtful, but sought reassurances from Murdoch and it appears that George Osborne also very strongly put his case.

Despite occasional rumblings, the subject seemed to be largely dying down until after the General Election of May 2010. Despite further warnings from Paddy Ashdown and possibly Nick Clegg, Coulson followed Cameron to Downing Street.

In December last year new allegations emerged surrounding the hacking of celebrity phones, particularly the actress Sienna Miller, and this made Coulson's position and in January this year Coulson stepped down from his position, citing similar reasons to Alastair Campbell, in regard to him becoming the story and distracting from the government's business.

As more and more revelations have since appeared, the whole News International Empire, especially its British holdings, have come under increased scrutiny. Rebekah brooks, now Chief Executive at news International has faced demands that she stand down, including from Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

In the last couple of weeks the Labour Party have seen a transformed Ed Miliband as he has found a new confidence. He has led from the front on this issue, calling for inquiries, not only into the News of the World, but also into wider media practices as it became apparent that News International weren't the only ones engaged in nefarious activities.

Although a little slow to follow suit, to his credit David Cameron has come fully on board and is setting up an inquiry under a judge, Lord Leveson, to investigate the whole issue. Instead of having two inquiries, this will be in two parts, firstly investigating wider media activities, and make recommendations for a, "more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media and its independence from government, while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards".

Lord Leveson's remit also covers investigating the whole phone hacking scandal, including the the first police investigation, including whether police officers received corrupt payments. I think this is a sensible way to go, as two separate inquiries would inevitably have crossed paths, whereas this will save money, but be a more efficient evidence collecting, and collating mechanism.

In the light of all this, there have inevitably been questions surrounding David Cameron's judgement in employing Andy Coulson, who has recently been arrested and bailed over the new allegations, and some people believing it could lead to his resignation.

I feel that this is unlikely to happen, although Cameron will be weakened for a while by the fallout. It is true that he did make a severe error of judgement in taking Coulson into government, it seems that he made the mistake of just putting too much faith in the opinions of others, as well as his desire, like many others, to stay onside with the Murdoch empire. Indeed Ed Miliband himself has admitted that he too was mistaken in trying to get close to them, and in his statement yesterday, Cameron said it was a natural thing for opposition leaders to do, to try and get media backing.

The prime Minister has had a lot of bad press this year, as the economy struggles to get going, inflation stays stubbornly high, and there have been a number of policy u-turns and delays. Yet he currently keeps a firm grip on his party, and is its main spokesman. Whenever a big policy announcement is made, it seems to be Cameron fronting it, and without him, the Conservatives, and probably the government, would have no effective spokesman at all.

There is also no likely successor on the horizon, as the only cabinet minister of sufficient stature, William Hague, has already had the job, and other possibles, George Osborne and Theresa May don't have the public image needed in modern politics.

In the end nobody is going to come out of this whole scandal with much credit. Although individuals such as Ed Miliband may gain some kudos for the way he went about pushing for the inquiries, and to his credit, kept party politics by and large out of it, he too had tried to cosy up to Murdoch.

The important thing now is to ensure that all inquiries, the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks will appear before the media committee next Tuesday, though whether this will reveal anything new I am doubtful, but hopefully some accountability and explanation for previous actions (Brooks previously admitted to knowing about hacking) will be sought, are able to investigate and reach their conclusions unmolested.

There are many lessons to be learned for politicians and the media alike, with the public's trust in them having been even further eroded. Politicians were burned by the expenses scandal, and the media has been by this one, will they lead to any real changes? There may be in the relationships between the press and politicians on the surface, but they will still need each other, the press will still be looking for stories to sell their papers, and the politicians will be seeking to gain power, and ways of getting their message across.

Political pressure was sufficient to force News International to withdraw its bid for BSkyB, but it would be wrong to take too much from this. If it hadn't been for the actions of the News of the World, it is almost certain that the takeover would have been approved at some stage. It may even turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory if Murdoch decides to dump all his British media investments, which whilst causing some short-lived cheer, might have longer term consequences.

There is a long way to go on this investigation, and more revelations may yet come out. Whatever positives there are from this week, and perhaps the cross-party agreement reached, and the general tone of the debate, being the biggest, we must not think that it is all over.