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Phone Hacking Trial: Lessons from the ‘Media Trial of the Century’ – Granville Williams

News-International-007After eight months of sensational revelations during the phone-hacking trial we have at least three devastating insights into the operations of the UK arm of a global media group, but also the revelations highlight broader policy concerns about what to do in the future to constrain the abuse of power demonstrated by Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper group.

The first insight is the complete failure of any kind of responsible or ethical corporate governance at the heart of the powerful News International group.

In the trial, we have to note the absence of one key player, James Murdoch, now ensconced in the USA and who, apparently, knew nothing about £1 million payments to buy silence over phone-hacking and other goings-on on his watch.

The big question is how far up the hierarchy of News Corp’s British papers did the culture of illegal activity extend? Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson denied any knowledge of the phone-hacking that was rife at The News of the World.

Brooks, who was found not guilty on conspiracy charges of hacking, corruption and perverting the course of justice, edited The News of the World from 2000 to 2003, then ran Britain’s best selling tabloid The Sun until 2009, before ending up as chief executive of all Murdoch’s British newspapers. Alongside Brooks in the dock was her former deputy, Andy Coulson, who was also close to Murdoch, and who succeeded her as editor of The News of the World in 2003.

Three senior journalists at the News of the World trial with Brooks and Coulson had already pleaded guilty to hacking and face possible jail: The News of the World’s chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, Investigations Editor, Greg Miskiw and Assistant News Editor, James Weatherup. Private eye Glenn Mulcaire, who was jailed in 2007, had also pleaded guilty.

What were the bosses on the paper doing if they didn’t know what their underlings were doing?

Secondly we get a powerful insight into the dominant power of Murdoch’s media group, before the phone-hacking scandal blew up, over politicians, the Metropolitan Police and pretty much every nook and cranny of key UK institutions. Everyone, it seems, deferred to Murdoch and his hired hands.

Harold Evans pointed out at the time of the Leveson Report:

“Press ownership is an unresolved issue… I’m highly critical of the fact that it seems to accept the present level of media concentration, and the present level of media concentration is one of the reasons the phone-hacking scandal erupted. Why? Because the politicians were scared of News International and News International was scared of nobody.”

A subservient, uncritical relationship between the UK political class and Murdoch and his executives has been revealed. How will David Cameron be able to erase the reports of the text messages to Rebekah Brookes (ending ‘LOL’), or Jeremy Hunt, then Culture Secretary, expunge the revelations of a trail of emails from his office desperately trying to clear the takeover of BSkyB by Murdoch?

Thirdly, we get an insight into the depths to which journalists would go to get sensational stories. More than 1000 celebrities, politicians, sports stars, members of the Royal Household and victims of crime had their voicemails intercepted over a six-year period between 2000 and 2006.

This isn’t over with the present verdicts. There is more to come. Another 15 senior News Corp journalists — mainly from The Sun — also face charges of paying public officials, and others from The SunNews of the World and Daily Mirror are still on bail.

But the broader policy issues also become more urgent after the trial. We have a newspaper industry regulatory body, IPSO, set up to thwart Leveson’s requirement for independent regulation. And the issue of media ownership, which Harold Evans referred to above, seems to have been pushed to the margins.

One glaring lesson from the trial was that industry self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission failed abysmally to restrain the phone-hacking excesses. Another is that politicians for over three decades secured Murdoch’s support, but democracy suffered as politicians bowed to Murdoch’s media power. We urgently need clear rules on media ownership at a UK and European level to prevent such excesses again.

This post was originally published by the Media Initiative


  1. Methusalada

    I have always believed that it is important for media integrity to be preserved in a factual & honest manner. This is dependant upon the skill of the reporter who writes the story, the news editor who compiles all the newsworthy stories together and selects the day story and the importantly follow the yellow brick road stories or where ever the sludge thickens and smells the most ! Then we have ” The Editor” the (final) decision maker on all “the somewhere over the rainbow” articles worthy of press release to go too press .
    Hopefully that would be sufficient in todays modern technological industry . Alas No we often have the puppeteer master owner who today stands aside as the owl perching owner on all his industrial information conglomerate . He or she decides on what comes in is regurgitated out as news to us the public . He or she can alter the shade or meaning of a story to be read & digested on any fact or fiction, in any order to satiate his will & megalomaniac political processing powers. That’s known as freedom of the press ?
    Hopefully their shall come an end to all the mulching of bovine excreta at some stage in the future. May 2014 be such a year, for the preservation of sanity & further psychopathic attacks.

  2. Timgo

    sound stuff – you might have quoted an interesting phrase, amid the verbosity of even Fleet Street apologist Peter Preston in the Observer of June 22, regarding the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks, commenting that even under an IPSO regime “Rebekah’s professed lack of complicity or knowledge would be a firing matter come what may.”

  3. Felix Labinjo

    Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg once told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show that there was a need to look again in the round at the plurality rules to make sure there is proper plurality in the British press. The Labour leader, Ed Milliband is also on record as saying he does not believe that one person should “continue to control … 34% of the newspaper market.”

    In her Charles Wheeler Lecture at the University of Westminster last year, the Shadow Deputy Prime Minister Harriet Harman made a strong case for taking action against media monopoly:

    “….Media monopoly matters in a democracy. The concentration of unaccountable media power distorts the political system. The media shapes how we see ourselves and how we see the world. In a democracy, the free flow of information, of different points of view, is crucial for open debate.
    Too much power in too few hands hinders proper debate. Plurality ensures that no media owner can exert such a damaging influence on public opinion and on policy makers. It ensures that no media company can have so much influence that it feels itself immune, above the rule of law. It ensures no private interest can set itself above the public interest….”

    In light of the revelations made during the phone-hacking trial, politicians of all shades must now take action to limit the concentration of newspaper ownership in the hands of a few powerful media moguls. For a start, a third of broadcasting and newspaper licenses should be allocated to community and non-profit broadcast media in the interests of a healthy democracy

    There cannot be true freedom of the press where editorial independence is compromised, directly or indirectly, for whatever reason.

    In 2009, Argentina passed a new law imposing strict ownership and audience limits: any one owner can hold a maximum of 24 audio visual licences and television networks are banned from amassing more than 35% of the nation’s viewers.

    In rejecting an appeal by the Clarín multimedia group against the new law, the Supreme Court of Argentina concluded last year that the law does not affect Grupo Clarin’s right to freedom of expression: “….A law that set limits a priori is legitimate because it favours freedom of speech by limiting market concentration..” and “….without the needed protection only a nominal democracy would exist.”

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