Padraig Reidy: When truth is stranger than fiction


Three years ago this week, David Cameron announced that a public inquiry into phone hacking would be set up, under the guidance of Lord Justice Leveson.

It may be difficult to imagine now, given how acrimonious the fallout has been, but this was generally seen as a positive step. Something had gone very wrong, it seemed, in public life. Hacking was merely the embodiment of a secretive threeway between politicians, the Metropolitan Police and News International. A judge-led inquiry would clear the air, we hoped. No one, not even the people behind Hacked Off, (which, after all, was not set up to lobby for a new state-backed regulator, or for enhanced privacy, but merely for an inquiry) could have foreseen the impasse we are now at, with a ludicrous Royal Charter for press regulation, punitive press laws on the statute books, two proposed regulators (the industry’s IPSO and the pro-Royal Charter IMPRESS), and at least one paper, the Financial Times, deciding to opt out of the argument entirely – while the police and politicians have walked away from the inquiry unscathed.

Richard Bean’s new play Great Britain, currently showing at the National Theatre, could be seen as the first artistic response to the phone-hacking scandal and the fallout from it.

It was reportedly developed and auditioned under wraps as the hacking trial was under way at the Old Bailey, and opened shortly after Andy Coulson was found guilty and Rebekah Brooks acquitted.

But there is more to this than just phone hacking. As the title suggests, Great Britain sets out to be a state-of-the-nation address, examining the interconnections and relations between the press, police and politicians. It is the Leveson Inquiry on stage (as if the Leveson Inquiry were not theatrical enough). And as with the Leveson Inquiry, it is the press who come out worst. The police are incompetent, the politicians are pathetic, but the journalists are venal.

The plot centres on Paige Britain (geddit??!!??) a young news editor on a tabloid called the Free Press (geddit??!!??), who discovers how to hack phones and hence supplies her paper with a series of scoops.

Britain, played by Billie Piper, at first seems sort of composite of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Except she’s not, because a Brooks character is introduced into the plot and kept entirely ignorant of Britain’s voicemail shenanigans (Brooks was, after all, found innocent of conspiracy to hack phones).

Robert Glenister plays Free Press editor Wilson Tikkel, who may be Andy Coulson or may be Kelvin Mackenzie. Tikkel is the classic tabloid geezer of the popular imagination, and by classic I mean archaic. He swears and cajoles and judges stories at morning conference on whether they give him a “hard-on” or not (though this does lead to one of the play’s funnier lines — “no one ever got a hard on from assonance”). Though Private Eye likes to remind readers of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s frequent “Vagina Monologues,” the stereotype still feels worn.

Then there is a driven Irish proprietor who made his money from advertising the, er, adult industry and has his eye on the broadcast market.

The play is riddled with these portmanteau characters and scenarios. A thick Lancashire cricketer is framed as an adulterer after Free Press reporters misinterpret a message left on his phone suggesting he had slept with a person who was not his partner, which turned out to be thanks for support at a funeral. This scenario was in fact what happened to Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Association. There is also a rough assemblage of several child murder stories and anti-paedophile campaigns.

This might not seem important – after all, it’s not one of those David Hare verbatim plays, but it becomes troubling when stories and scenarios are thrown together to create a broad mush of bad stuff. The satire feels too broad, too generalised. Just as Leveson expanded from being a “hacking inquiry” to an investigation of every single aspect of the press, so Great Britain chucks everything in together. And as with Leveson, the whole press is punished for the crimes of a few.

Meanwhile, in its attempt to parody the cynicism of the tabloid world, Great Britain becomes quite nasty itself. There’s a thin line between mocking un-PC attitudes and actually laughing along with them, and Great Britain gallumphs across it carelessly. A gay half-Welsh, half-Chinese police officer is called Bryn Wong. Hilarious apparently. The security guard at the newspaper is Lithuanian. Got to be a gag in that. A black police officer is called Sergeant Ojo; the audience sniggers, and then properly guffaws when his superior calls him a “daft African twat”. The Irish character is, inevitably, a former IRA terrorist.

And then there’s the misogyny: major female characters are inevitably scheming, using their, er, feminine charms to get what they want. In one particularly nasty joke, Piper explains the origin of the term “Brazilian” for pubic hair pruning, before going on to wink that if she named her newly-trimmed area after where she went to get the trimming done, her underwear-area would be known as the Isle of Dogs.

That’s the level Great Britain operates at. Unsubtle and unpretty. At the start of the second act, Piper emerges dressed in Margaret Thatcher blue, complete with handbag, and delivers a clunky lecture on how things really work in the corridors of power. At the end, we get another lecture, “provocatively” pointing out the apparent complicity of the audience in the Free Press’s crimes, and in doing so equating the expenses expose with phone hacking (both being founded in illegality) and effectively showing utter contempt for the idea of public interest.

But the archaicness of it all is simply a reflection of the way the entire true story, from initial phone-hacking allegations to the government’s Royal Charter on press regulation, proceeded.

A criminal problem became a political issue; actions at one newspaper became the fault of the whole press; and ultimately, the issue became about the wars that started in the mid 80s, when Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch took on the miners and the printers, events long predating the hacking scandal that first broke in the mid-2000s.

The arguments are from the 80s, the jokes are from the 80s. There is barely a nod to the press and the web of today, apart from the aping of the autotuned “Leveson The Musical” video everyone loved in 2012.

In spite of the relative recency of the Leveson Inquiry and the hacking trial, Great Britain largely fails to address the present and the future. It contributes little apart from cheap laughs to the ongoing discussions on how our media should run itself, or be run by others. But this playwright Bean is not operating in a vacuum. Perhaps we’ll get the play about the press we need when we get the debate about the press we need. Much of that debate so far, much like Great Britain, has been rushed, crude, and played to stereotype.

This article was posted on July 17, 2014 at

Brooks to PM: "We're in this together"

David Cameron has said statutory regulation must be a “last resort” in reforming the British press.

Spending the day giving evidence before the Leveson Inquiry today, the prime minister — who himself called for the Inquiry into press standards — said he was not ruling out statutory involvement in a new regulator, but said there was a need to “make everything that can be independent work before you reach for that lever”.

He said independent regulation of the press must involve all newspapers, be compulsory, be able to impose penalties and have investigatory powers.

A reformed Press Complaints Commission (PCC) had to be seen to be simple, understandable and offer redress for ordinary individuals, he said.

The key, Cameron said, was if an individual suffered press intrusion or was the subject of an inaccurate article, “that it really is worth their while going to this regulator, however established, and they know they’re going to get a front-page apology.

“Are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by the press?” he asked, citing repeatedly the “catacylsmic” revelations of last summer that abducted schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, which led to the closure of tabloid the News of the World and Cameron’s call for a public inquiry into press malfeasance.

“If families like the Dowlers feel this has really changed the way they would have been treated, we would have done our job properly,” Cameron said.

While he maintained he understood the “real concern” over statutory regulation of a free press, he repeated that he felt the country’s current system of press self-regulation had “failed”.

Lord Justice Leveson’s report, which will offer recommendations on future press regulation, is due to be published this autumn.

Cameron emerged from his day in the witness box relatively unscathed, save the revelation of a text message from former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks during the Conservative party conference in October 2009, in which she told the then leader of the opposition that “professionally, we’re definitely in this together” and signed off “yes he Cam!”

Cameron also spoke cautiously about his appointment of former News of the Wold editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief in 2007, noting that it was “controversial” due to Coulson’s resignation from the tabloid following the jailing of one of its reporters on phone hacking offences.

Yet Cameron stressed he and current chancellor George Osborne felt Coulson was a “very effective” candidate.

“The calculation was, who is going to be good enough, tough enough to deal with a very difficult job,” Cameron said.

He described the issue of Coulson’s lower-level vetting by Number 10 as a “red herring”, and defended handing responsibility of the £8bn bid for control of BSkyB to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, telling the Inquiry that it had been endorsed by Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell and backed with legal advice.

Looking to the future, Cameron recommended greater distance and respect between members of the press and politicians, noting that the relationship was not “a particularly trusting one at the moment”.

“When I got into Downing Street I did try to create a bit more distance. I think I need to go back and do that again,” Cameron said.

The Inquiry continues next week.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Gordon Brown refutes Rebekah Brooks's account of relationship with News International

Gordon Brown has denied that his wife Sarah gave consent to the Sun to run a 2006 story about their son suffering from cystic fibrosis, contesting the evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry by the paper’s then-editor Rebekah Brooks.

The former prime minister told the Leveson Inquiry this morning that there was “no question ever of explicit permission” given to the tabloid, denying Brooks’ claim that the Browns had given her permission to run the front-page story in November 2006, which revealed the couple’s four-month-old son was suffering from the disease.

Brown revealed he had received a letter of apology from the Fife health board, which stated it believed it was “highly likely” that there was unauthorised information given by a staff member that “allowed the Sun in end through this middleman to publish the story”.

Brooks told the Inquiry last month that the story came from a father of another child cystic fibrosis sufferer, and maintained she had the Browns’ express permission before publishing the story.

“If the Browns had asked me not to run cystic fibrosis story, I wouldn’t have,” she told the Inquiry.

But Brown said today that “no parent in the land…would have given explicit permission for this story”, claiming he and his family were presented with a “fait accompli” and had no choice over the story being published.

When asked by counsel Robert Jay QC why Sarah Brown arranged Brooks’s 40th birthday party in June 2008 and attended her wedding the following year, Brown said his wife was “one of the most forgiving people” and that she “finds the good in everyone”.

He also refuted claims made under oath to the Inquiry by News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch that Brown had “declared war” on the Sun during a 2009 conversation with the media mogul, following the tabloid switching its support to the Conservative party ahead of the 2010 general election.

“The conversation never took place,” Brown said, adding that there was “absolutely no evidence”, and that he felt it was “shocking” that the Inquiry had been told under oath that the conversation had occurred. He added that he was not surprised by the allegiance switch, believing it had been planned for “many, many months”.

He also made several digs at the tabloid for what he saw as sensationalised reporting of the war in Afghanistan, accusing its coverage of suggesting the Labour party “didn’t care about what was happening to our troops”. Brown said he still felt damage had been done to the war effort by such claims.

Discussing his dealings with media barons, Brown said he had a “duty” to engage with the press but that there was a “line in the sand” that he could not cross.

“You can serve dinner but don’t have to serve up BSkyB as part of that dinner,” he said, alluding to the recent storm over links between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and News Corp over the bid for the takeover of the satellite broadcaster.

During his time as prime minister from 2007 to 2010, Brown said he “rarely” read newspapers, quipping: “I’m so obsessed by the newspapers I rarely read them”.

Elsewhere in his morning of evidence, Brown stressed his concerns for the future of “quality journalism” at one point suggesting a BBC licence fee model ought to be looked at for funding journalism in the future.

The Inquiry continues this afternoon with evidence from chancellor George Osborne.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

UK: Phone-hacking police charge Rebekah Brooks

Former News International Chief executive Rebekah Brooks has been  charged with perverting the course of justice, as part of the. Brooks has been charged along with several others, including her husband Charlie, and four former members of News International staff, in relation to the destruction of evidence and concealing documents and computers from police. In a statement Brooks, who faces three charges, declared the decision “weak and unjust”.