British Bread and Circuses

While the Leveson Inquiry brings revelation upon revelation about the sickness at the heart of British tabloid journalism, the tabloids themselves continue to look elsewhere. The Sun ignore its owners problems today, its front page was more worried about George Michael’s pneumonia. But none of its competitors saw of it as a major issue either. The Express hails an anti-Euro victory, the Mail was talking about fat women, the Star fixed its eyes on Beckham, and the Mirror was fretting over Gary Glitter.

None of News’s enemies were keen to put the knife in. While the Inquiry examines the techniques at the News of the World, it is also gradually throwing light on a sick industry where the need to get the story overwhelm all other priorities. The stark testimony of Millie Dowler’s parents and the McCanns and all the other victims show an industry out of control and beyond self-policing. Hacked Hugh Grant is right: a section of the British press has become toxic using tactics of bullying intimidation and blackmail.None of the other papers are prepared to listen to Grant. But it is instructive to listen to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s Orwell Lecture. When the Guardian first exposed the Gordon Taylor hacking in July 2009, police criticised the Guardian police not the News of the World. News International also claimed the Guardian had “deliberately misled the British public”. Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman were jailed for illegally intercepting phone messages from Clarence House but they were just rotten apples.

When Nick Davies produced the “for Neville” emails at a House of Commons select committee, the apple defence fell apart. One document seized from Mulcaire’s home had details about the News of the World’s systemic hacking in an email he received with instructions it was for Neville Thurlbeck, the paper’s chief reporter. The document was among 11,000 seized from the house and rotting in a plastic bag until plaintiff Gordon Taylor’s team got hold of them in a court order.

When Taylor’s legal team advised NotW’s head of legal Tom Crone they had the “For Neville” email, Crone went to see James Murdoch, who was appointed CEO of News International in 2007. Murdoch agreed to pay £1m in a secret settlement: £300,000 for their own outside lawyers, £220,000 for Gordon Taylor’s lawyers, and £425,000 to Taylor. Crone and News of the World’s former editor, Colin Myler told the House of Commons Select Committee Murdoch was briefed in 2008 about the email and the phone hacking before authorising the payout. But Murdoch denied the allegations twice to the same committee.

The New York Times called his performance unflappable. These were hard times for the News empire, NYT said, with the folding of NotW, the loss of the even bigger $12 billion bid to buy BSB and the exit of many of its top executives. Murdoch admitted he knew about the emails but had never seen them or understood their significance. Crone and Myler were wrong, he told the committee.

The Tory member of the committee Philip Davies said if Murdoch was right, then it was incredible he paid out so much money to fix the Taylor problem without looking at it first. Paul Farrelly, another committee member, said a 10-year-old would have asked how Clive Goodman could have been the only hacker when he was the royal reporter and Gordon Taylor was clearly “not a member of the royal family.” When committee member and hacking victim Tom Watson told him he was the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise, Murdoch called his comment “inappropriate”.

The only reason it was inappropriate was that Murdoch knew of the crime. Much like today’s tabloids, his preference was to simply ignore it. Many who turn up to the hearings are there to see the stars giving evidence and don’t care about press freedom or responsibility. As Murdoch and his fellow publishers know, the nefarious doings of the press doesn’t sell newspapers. It will never appear on the front page – not while Freddie Starr is eating my camel. Given their abject surrender of the fourth estate, the industry can have no complaints if Justice Leveson takes away some of their privileges.

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