Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Leave yourselves on the righteousness of the sun

News International is currently reeling from righteous anger over its mismanagement of the now defunct News of The World newspaper; an anger threatening to engulf its other titles, The Sun (itself not averse to righteous indignation) and The Times, as well as obstruct the attempted takeover of BSkyB by its parent company. However, like the MPs expenses scandal, I worry it may reach the point (if it hasn’t already) of criticising from a general animosity rather than over any illegal activity. For example, the tail-end of the expenses scandal saw criticism of claims for biscuits which, given how many offices across the country can claim for milk and sugar, hardly seemed a valid complaint. The result was IPSA; a ludicrously over-the-top, ineffective and inefficient waste of millions of pounds of taxpayers money. And journalism is a more difficult profession to regulate if (and I used to think this a safe assumption) we also believe in the freedom of the press.

Therefore if we’re considering travelling down this dangerous path, let’s not distract ourselves with a personal dislike for this newspaper or that, this political party or that; let’s concentrate on the specific issue of phone hacking and who (if anyone) is at fault. Much as we may want to question David Cameron’s judgement in appointing Andy Coulson, the relevant question is whether Andy Coulson did anything illegal in his previous position as editor of that paper. Likewise we may be tempted to query the cosy relationship between News International and the Conservative party, and before them Labour who were in government at the time of these events. We might be upset to find that when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, The Sun newspaper obtained details relating to his son's medical condition - which he understandably wished to keep private. These are worthy concerns, and the speed with which politicians are distancing themselves suggests a long overdue adjustment is already taking place. They are however distractions from the question we ask; who is responsible for the phone hacking and why wasn’t it stopped?

In answer we find not a failure of regulation, but people who engaged in unlawful activity and others who didn’t do their job. It is not the fault of the Press Complaints Commission when journalists break the law and the police - for whatever reason - fail to uphold it. It is this failure of the police - who knew what was happening yet took no action, some of whom were themselves corrupt - which should be our greatest concern. Tighter regulation of the press would have made no difference. We should also remember, though unpleasant, the actions of The Sun in obtaining private medical records may be no worse than those of The Telegraph in obtaining details on MPs expenses, or The Guardian in scooping this latest story. It’s mucky stuff, the truth; do we really want to stop it?


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