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Opinion: “The PCC’s working group on phone hacking – too little too late” – Martin Moore

Image from Brian Gautreau (flickr cc)At the weekend, in an attempt to cling onto power in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak appointed a vice president and a new cabinet. To the Egyptian people, to outside observers, even to the American government, this was too little too late. Things had already moved so far that nothing but an orderly transition of power had become necessary.  On a much smaller and more prosaic level, the Press Complaints Commission this week announced the formation of a ‘working group’ to consider new information about phone hacking, and to make recommendations following the new police investigation.

As in Egypt this is too little too late. The working group, composed of two lay members and one editorial member, has no powers, no money and no sanctions. They will no doubt do their utmost to show concern and to recommend that it never happens again, but we know from past experience how ineffectual such concern and recommendations have been.

Back in 2003 the PCC made an adjudication against The Sun for breaching the code of practice on listening devices. In its ruling it said that: ‘In reaching its decision on this matter, the Commission started from the premise that eavesdropping into private telephone conversations – and then publishing transcripts of them – is one of the most serious forms of physical intrusion into privacy’.

Phone hacking continued.

In 2006 the PCC was given the results of Operation Motorman by the then Information Commissioner Richard Thomas. Thomas hoped the PCC would look at how endemic the illegal collection of personal information was across the news industry (he cited 305 journalists from more than two dozen publications – all from the records of one private detective) and institute a major inquiry to sort it out. Sir Christopher Meyer, then Chairman of the PCC, said it was a police matter and the PCC would not institute such an inquiry.

Phone hacking continued.

We know this because at the end of 2006 Clive Goodman was arrested, charged, and later imprisoned for hacking into the phones of the Royal Household – including the two princes.

After Goodman’s imprisonment the PCC launched its first ‘investigation’. Really, it was an investigation only in the loosest sense of the term. The PCC wrote to newspaper editors asking them if they were hacking into phones. ‘No, we’re not,’ came the unsurprising reply. The PCC did not even question Clive Goodman’s editor, Andy Coulson, saying that since he had resigned from the paper he was beyond their remit. From this ‘investigation’ the PCC concluded that phone hacking went no further than Clive Goodman. It confirmed, in other words, exactly the story given to it by the News of the World.

Phone hacking continued.

Two years passed before The Guardian managed to unearth the details of a court case in which James Murdoch signed off a payment of £700,000 to Gordon Taylor (see Q1511-1512) to prevent the release of files that might have shown phone hacking went further than Clive Goodman. The Guardian published information showing further high profile victims of phone hacking and implicating more journalists at the News of the World. Mark Lewis, the solicitor who acted on behalf of Gordon Taylor, reported being told by the police that there were thousands of victims of phone hacking.

The PCC instituted a new ‘inquiry’. Again, the exchange of letters with editors began, though this time the Commission also asked The Guardian to provide them with further information (which it did). The result of the ‘investigation’? The PCC reported, again, that it could find no evidence that phone hacking went further than Clive Goodman. Indeed, far from criticising the News of the World it criticised The Guardian for over-egging its own investigation: ‘the Guardian’s stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given’, the Commission reported insouciantly.

The new Chair was so confident in the position taken by the Commission that she chose to dismiss Mark Lewis’ comments publicly at the Society of Editors conference in Stansted in 2009. Lewis then successfully sued Baroness Buscombe and the Commisison for libel, in a case that was settled for an undisclosed sum in November 2010 (and went virtually unreported by the press). The MST requested further information about the settlement but received no response.

Phone hacking continued (allegedly – the Commission was informed of a new allegation as recently as 2010).

In September 2010 the New York Times published the findings of a three month investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World. It told the story of the princes’ phones being hacked, detailed the ongoing litigation that could reveal how far the practice went at News of the World, and noted the ‘several thousand mobile phone numbers of potential hacking victims’.

The PCC noted the NY Times’ investigation but did not choose to act. In response to a letter from the editor of The Guardian about the NY Times’ findings (and the previous evidence uncovered by The Guardian), the Commission wrote: ‘It is not for the PCC to examine claims’, the letter said, ‘that are the subject of active police inquiry, or to comment publicly on them’.

Therefore the announcement of a working group fails to inspire confidence. If previous adjudications, investigations and expressions of concern have not achieved anything, it is difficult to see how an informal working group can do anything substantive.

If the industry were serious about phone hacking – which we know it is not given how the majority of papers have ignored, dismissed or buried the story (with notable exceptions) – it would have instituted a genuinely independent inquiry a long time ago. Last year, following The Guardian’s revelations, the Media Standards Trust called for just such an industry-led independent inquiry. The call was not taken up.

To be fair to the PCC it does not have the remit, the resources, the independence or the powers to be able to do anything about phone hacking, and that is because it has not been given them by the industry. It is just unfortunate that it chooses to give the impression that it can.

This post originally appeared on the Media Standards Trust Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks

1 Comment

  1. cleland thom

    Personally, I believe the NoW journalists didn’t realise what they were doing was illegal at the time.

    They may not have not received any law training since they left college, and didn’t know where the line was drawn, or even that there was a line at all.

    Journalists need regular law training, but it’s often the first thing to go when budgets are tight.

    I’ve lost count of the clients who cancelled law training with me on ‘costs grounds’ – and then found themselves paying thousands of pounds in legal costs and damages a few months later after someone commited an entirely avoidable blunder due to ignorance.

    The phone hacking issue also raises questions about the News of the World reporters’ information gathering skills. Hacking into a phone on the off-chance of discovering a story is very lazy journalism. Anyone could do it.

    They could have got most of the same stories legally, by nurturing great contacts and investing the time and legwork.

    The PCC emerges from the hiatus with little credit – not that it had a lot in the first place. Quite how it expects to be taken seriously when the chair of its editors code committee employs jouurnalists who behave like the ones in this article is beyond me.

    The PCC’s decision to set up a committee to review its actions – or lack of them – is too little, too late.

    The phone hacking issue confirms what I have been saying for a long time – that the PCC is far too weak to deal with national papers and consumer magazines … and far too heavy-handed for local newspapers and many B2B magazines.

    My view is that the PCC should become mediation service for lattter and have no power at all over the former. Let the courts deal with the big boys, and let the government amend Conditional Fee Arrangements so that ordinary members of the public can bring libel and privacy actions.

    There are many who are using the phone hacking scandal to call for government regulation of the press. This should be resisted. Leave state regulation to the dictatorships where it belongs.

    The press is already regulated by the law of the land. And, as some News of the Journalists may find to their cost, the law is, and always has been a very effective media regulator.

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