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Monday, September 06, 2010 

Let's go round again.

I have to admit to being slightly jaded about the second re-emergence of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. After all, haven't we gone over this enough times already? Hadn't we already established, as the parliamentary media committee put it in their report, that the NotW's executives at the time of the Goodman-Mulcaire debacle were suffering from "collective amnesia" and engaged in "deliberate obfuscation" when they gave evidence to them? Wasn't it apparent that the Metropolitan police, having always had a convivial relationship with News International, and especially the Screws, simply didn't feel the need to push the Crown Prosecution Service to take anyone other than the two men caught red-handed to court? Moreover, isn't it unfair to pick just on the News of the World when it's also acknowledged that the tabloid press as a whole was at the time engaging in either equivalent activities in a pathetic attempt to get stories, or doing exactly the same as Goodman and Mulcaire, even if they got outside agencies to do it for them instead?

The answer to all of these not quite rhetorical questions ought to be a resounding yes. While the New York Times' article does contain some new material, such as audio of Mulcaire walking a journalist, not proved to be from the Screws, through a hack, as well as the testimony of Sean Hoare, Matt Driscoll and further anonymous accounts from former and current News International staff, it's the thoroughly disingenuous behaviour from Labour MPs which undermines the whole reviving of the issue. This is clearly no longer about the probity of the original police investigation or a tabloid newspaper which acts as a moral arbiter on the nation engaging in systematic illegality, but instead about pure political advantage. From formerly not daring to so much as squeak a word of anything approaching criticism of either the police or the Murdoch press, we have the likes of Alan Johnson standing up in the Commons and making mealy-mouthed, truly insufferable statements which verge on doing both. That's without Tom Watson, who has admittedly been involved in the investigation from the beginning, making similarly hyperbolic speeches about the whole world supposedly watching to see what happens.

Fundamentally, this shouldn't even be about Andy Coulson potentially lying to a parliamentary committee about his involvement or not in phone hacking while he was News of the World editor. This should be about the initial judgement of David Cameron and his team in deciding that Coulson was suitable to be his chief spin doctor. It's not just that he was the head of a newspaper which decided the law was secondary to getting exclusives on celebrities shagging around, it's also his behaviour to his staff while he was doing it, as demonstrated by the tribunal payout to Matt Driscoll, which found he had been bullied by Coulson after he failed to stand up a story about the colour of shirts a football team was going to play in the next season. Yes, that's the level of pettiness we're dealing with. As pointed out before, regardless of what you can say about Alastair Campbell once he became Blair's spinner, he didn't have anything like the kind of record as a tabloid hack as Coulson did. More pertinently perhaps, he was also very good at what he did, whereas Coulson seems to have been hired firstly to act as a bridge to the Murdoch press, with everything else coming secondary. He certainly didn't have anything like the political background which Campbell, and there's nothing to really suggest he has been any great shakes at doing the job, although his profile has been lower than Campbell's ever was when the phone-hacking hasn't dominated.

Clearly, the more Labour MPs complain about how Coulson may well have authorised the hacking of their voicemail, and the more the likes of the Guardian keep banging on about it, the less likely it seems that the Cameroons are going to give him up without the police deciding that he was involved after all, and that is about as realistic as the Murdochs deciding to admit they've been telling a pack of lies from the very beginning. With Coulson prepared to talk to the police, and with only those with a potential grievance against News International liable to speak out, this seems to lead only to one outcome: it all blowing over again.

The truth is that the initial investigation came far too close to the long dreaded potential face-off between the popular press and the police, whose relationship for decades has been close if not at times incestuous. The Stephen Whittamore investigation clearly showed that the use of the "dark arts" was not just confined to the Screws but was endemic across the entire tabloid landscape. If they had vigorously pursued the Screws over all its infringements into illegality, just where would it have ended? Who are they to make decisions into what is or isn't in the public interest, as they or rather the CPS would have had to? How could they then not turn their attention to the other newspapers? It would have had huge potential implications, leading almost certainly to demands for a true privacy law. The last thing New Labour and now the Conservatives want is to endanger their relationship with, as this demonstrates, the hugely powerful Murdoch press. It was in no one's interests to go much further then the Met did originally.

It all eventually comes back to what kind of media we actually want. For all the complaining about what it serves up, the press in this country still sells massively for the most part. Even if we might object to the "dark arts" when it's to prove that a footballer was banging some tart, we keep either paying for it or delivering the hits; the News of the World's website crashed yesterday morning under the weight of the clicks for its latest expose. When we're indifferent to what they do, we ensure that the Press Complaints Commission can continue to maintain that there was nothing untoward happening in Wapping apart from the antics of Goodman and Mulcaire, and continue to operate as an effective cartel. They get away with it because they can, because politicians are terrified of upsetting the nation's potential mood-swingers and because even the police, as this shows, fear the consequences should they dig even slightly below the surface. And let's face it, nothing's going to change, except possibly for the worse, Twitter/Facebook-mob or otherwise.

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