Don't forget, it was good journalism that exposed phone hacking
John Kampfner: Don't forget, it was good journalism that exposed phone hacking
07 Jul 11

Everyone is competing for the colour of their adjectives. Everyone agrees that the actions of the News of the World have been reprehensible, despicable — you can take your pick.

As the revelations tumble forth, exposing layer upon layer of depravity and potential corruption, it’s important to remember that the sins of the many (including seemingly those in high places) should not be used as an excuse to tighten control on an entire media. That was my message in a comment piece this week in the Financial Times. This is, as I wrote, a tough time to be promoting freedom of expression.

The instinct among many of the media’s critics is to tar everyone with the same brush. When I recently testified before a BBC radio commission on privacy I urged the commissioners not to fall into the trap of using a fisherman’s bottom trawling technique — if you throw a huge net into the sea you will find what you are looking for; you may also damage the environment for the good folk, and yes, those good folk do exist.

Many of the politicians who courted Rupert Murdoch’s News International are jumping onto the condemnation bandwagon. Their views carry no credibility, although some MPs have acted fearlessly and tenaciously in backing calls for a judicial inquiry into the hacking scandal.

At the launch of the Hacked Off campaign for an inquiry into the scandal — co-ordinated by Index on Censorship contributor Brian Cathcart and the Media Standards Trust— last night, MPs Tom Watson and Paul Farrelly were singled out for praise. And so they should have been.

In the Commons, David Cameron said that several inquiries might follow the police’s current investigation. This was immediately denounced as a ruse to delay finding out the truth. And, given the Prime Minister’s close links with the Murdoch clan (no less cosy than those enjoyed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), such an accusation may carry weight.

But there is a further danger: when Cameron, Miliband and others talk of inquiries into “media ethics”, alarm bells should sound — not because of the principle, but the motivation. Politicians, indeed anyone who holds power, by the nature of their positions seek to prevent inconvenient truths from coming to light. The time-honoured task of journalists is to challenge that.

Index on Censorship was asked by the organisers of “hacked off” to endorse their call for an investigation into hacking. We are watching their work with interest. We have thus far withheld formal support not because we disagree, but because we seek assurance that any probe can root out evil doing but reinforce good journalism.

The “princes of darkness” at the News of the World and beyond have provided politicians with a golden opportunity to strike back at the media more generally.