A former home secretary has attacked elements of the British press as “spiteful”, telling Lord Justice Leveson today that problems of nastiness were rooted in culture.
“Why are some elements of the media in this country so spiteful?” Alan Johnson MP asked the Leveson Inquiry today.
“It’s the nastiness, real nastiness you have to face. That’s a cultural thing,” he said. He pointed to the singling out of female politicians as subjects of spite, adding that he felt the sections of the press’s attempts to attack politicians’ families was “concerning”.
Johnson, who was home secretary from June 2009 to May 2010, told the Inquiry about a story the News of the World was due to run in January 2008 while he was health secretary alleging he had had an affair with a district nurse in Exeter.
“I’d never been to Exeter,” Johnson said, adding that he rang the paper’s editor to tell him the story was “absolute rubbish”.
“Run the story — it will be a good pension fund when I take you to court,” Johnson told the editor. The story — which was untrue — was never published.
On the topic of future regulation, Johnson toyed with the idea of a Parliament-backed system similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which oversees complaints made about police forces in England and Wales, but stressed the need to avoid “doing anything North Korean”.
“It is important that the press is not dragged kicking and screaming to a regime they fiercely disagree with,” Johnson said.
Also appearing this morning was Labour MP Tom Watson, one of the fiercest critics of News International, describing the publisher as the “ultimate floating voter” that behaved “with menace”.
Watson, a member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said there was a sense of “mystique about the News International stable” and of it having “unique access to Downing Street.”
“They were the ones that had the connections and everyone was aware of it,” Watson said. “As a minister when I discussed issues or policy, there was always a conversation about how this would play out in the Sun,” he added.
When asked by Leveson if there was a similar concern about other titles, Watson described the Daily Mail as more “constant” in its editorial position. “There were no surprises,” he said.
He named justice secretary Ken Clarke as one of the Murdoch-owned Sun’s “target MPs” and subject of “frequently harsh comment” in the redtop due to his willingness to “swim against the tide”.
Watson admitted he had “no hard evidence that there was a craven understanding” between politicians and executives at NI, but said he believed this was the “general view” among the public. He stressed that reforms were needed to restore public confidence in relations between the two.
Watson also revealed he had been contacted by a dozen MPs who had told him of their intimidation by NI titles and other British tabloids. He said they feared “ridicule and humiliation over their private lives or political mistakes”.
He also briefly described the surveillance the now-defunct News of the World subjected him to. An email trail between investigative journalist Mazher Mahmood and two executives at the tabloid suggests private investigator Derek Webb had been commissioned to survey Watson at a Labour Party conference in the hopes of proving he was having an affair; an allegation Watson said was untrue.
When asked about the phone hacking scandal that has engulfed the Murdoch empire, Watson argued that politicians had “closed their minds to the potential of a major scandal at one of the key outlets for their message.”
“Relations between them [NI and politicians] were too fibrous, so politicians couldn’t divorce their objective thinking,” he added.
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What very different figures Tom Crone and Colin Myler present in September 2011, compared with the chippy, brisk, pushy individuals who confronted the Commons media select committee in July 2009. And what a different picture they paint.
By way of a reminder, back then they began by attempting to have Tom Watson MP removed from the questioning panel on human rights grounds. Then Crone, formerly the legal affairs chief for the Sun and the News of the World, firmly told MPs: “In the aftermath of Clive Goodman and Mulcaire’s arrest and subsequent conviction various internal investigations were conducted by us.”
He asserted that the lawyers Burton Copeland, whom he described as “probably the leading firm in this country for white-collar fraud” had carried out an investigation inside News International in 2006-7.
Myler, the last editor of the News of the World, also spoke boldly in 2009 of Burton Copeland. They were all over the company at one time, he said: “My understanding of their remit was that they were brought in to go over everything and find out what had gone on, to liaise with the police…” He also pointed to News International’s own search of 2,500 emails in which “no evidence was found”. And he emphasised: “I have never worked or been associated with a newspaper that has been so forensically examined…”
Myler was “certainly not aware” in 2009 of any payment to Clive Goodman after his release from jail, and was apparently surprised when Crone admitted he had “a feeling there may have been a payment of some sort”.
It was a brazen-it-out, you’ve-got-no-proof performance. They were forgetful in some places and defiant in others, and generally gave the impression that they had done everything humanly possible to find out whether more than one rogue reporter had been involved in hacking, and come up with nothing.
Crone, moreover, gave the impression a lot of fuss was being made about nothing, dwelling on a remark by the police that there were only a “handful”of victims, and on a claim by Clive Goodman’s lawyer that only one story had ever been published that was based on hacking.
All that was in 2009. Both men — who as we know parted company with their employer over the summer — turned up this time in different mood. Indeed Myler, hunched over the table, appeared to be a different shape. They were some way short of contrite but they could not conceal that they were now playing on the losing side.
Little by little they conceded that, in truth, there were no internal investigations into hacking at News International in 2006-7. Burton Copeland’s letter on the subject could not have been clearer, declaring that the firm “was not instructed” to carry out any such investigation. As for the email search, another legal firm, Harbottle and Lewis, stated that that, too, could not be qualified as an investigation, while a former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald [an Index on Censorship trustee], has said that evidence of criminality in the emails was “blindingly obvious”.
And as we all know, too, there was more than one hacker. There wasn’t a handful of victims but almost certainly thousands. Lots of hacking stories were published. And Clive Goodman received a pay-off of £243,000.
The two men had little to offer in their defence. Myler said he had believed, wrongly, that there had been an investigation before he took over as editor, and then took refuge in blaming the police (not without some cause). And all along — this probably has the greatest long-term significance — he and Crone also firmly pushed the spotlight upwards, to James Murdoch.
If anybody thought they might meekly let James off the hook they were mistaken. The incriminating “for Neville” email was fully explained to the young News International chairman in a meeting in 2008, they said. According to Crone, now much more frank on the subject than he was in 2009: “I explained that this document meant there was wider News of the World involvement.” And “the effect of this document is that it goes beyond Clive Goodman”.
(This was the very interpretation that the Guardian put upon that document in 2009, and that the committee put upon it in 2010, a period when the likes of Crone and Myler were denouncing both as irresponsible and dishonest.)
The new Myler agreed with the new Crone about the meeting with James: “I think everybody perfectly understood the seriousness and significance of what we were discussing.” James’s insistence that he was given an “incomplete picture”, therefore, is directly challenged by the other two people who were there.
It is easy to forget that the formal purpose of these hearings is to establish whether the select committee has been misled in the course of its investigations into these matters since 2007. They will soon have to produce a report on that point — though probably not before hearing from James Murdoch again. As Crone and Myler must know, whatever else it may say, that report is certain to make very unpleasant reading for them.
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London and a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart
This article can also be read at the Hacked Off website
The Guardian has revealed that the News of the World hacked Sara Payne’s phone, which Rebekah Brooks had given her as a gift.
Payne had previously been told, accurately, that her name did not appear in Glenn Mulcaire’s notes, but her personal details were found there on Tuesday. The News of the World used its final issue to congratulate itself for its campaign for Sarah’s law.
Sara Payne herself wrote a column for the farewell edition, describing the News of the World reporters as her “good and trusted friends.” Tom Watson MP has decried this as “a whole new low”; and Sara Payne has said that she is “absolutely devastated and deeply disappointed.”
Read Brian Cathcart’s writing on the phone hacking scandal here.
You wait years to see Rupert Murdoch called to account over phone hacking and then some fool slaps foam in his face and MPs are congratualting the old man on his on his “immense courage”. This is not a foam-in-the-face matter. Ask the hacking victims. Ask all the people who have been fired or sacked. Ask people who care about improper influence. (more…)