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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The phone-hacking scandal: responding to the challenges

It’s hard to believe that two weeks ago the News of the World was Britain’s best-selling newspaper. On Sunday it printed its final edition after 168 years of business.

I’m far from a fan of Rupert Murdoch’s and I see very little reason to empathise with his current predicament. However, I was not thrilled to see the demise of the News of the World because this is a newspaper with history and, whatever I think of it personally, a popular appeal. The paper’s staff, most of whom are presumably innocent of wrongdoing, have been laid off as a result of Murdoch’s tactical manoeuvrings - while those who seem most implicated in misconduct, such as former editor Rebekah Brooks, are shown unmerited loyalty from the Murdochs. I personally find it a shame that in his quest to save both face and his expansionist ambitions Murdoch has shamelessly sold out his employees. Worse still is his arrogance in believing that he is bigger – and his personal interests more important – than one of the oldest newspapers in Britain.

If Murdoch’s aims in closing the News of the World were to deflect criticism and anger away from himself and News International ahead of the proposed takeover of BSkyB, then he has failed spectacularly. On an almost daily basis fresh revelations are demonstrating the levels to which The Sun, the News of the World and The Sunday Times have used what can be described diplomatically as ethically questionable means to gain information – including, it seems, the medical records of a disabled child. The outrage the conduct of the News of the World - in particular – has caused is right and justified, but sadly none of this is surprising.

The consequences of this scandal could be further reaching than the closure of one newspaper. They certainly should be. I have neither the time nor the appetite to explore the events of the previous week in detail; they have been effectively analysed and reported elsewhere in any case. But I think it is important to ask what this means for the future of the British media, especially in relation to how it operates. I also feel that Liberal Democrats, many of whom have been critical of the Murdoch empire and its dubious practices, not only speak out but promote a distinctive agenda for change within the media world.

Simon Hughes, Tim Farron and Don Foster have taken the initiative and have written to Rupert Murdoch urging him to respond to public opinion and withdraw the News Corporation bid for BSkyB. They state that “News International is simply no longer respected in this country. Given the history of the last six or more years, it should be of little surprise to you that many people in this country have no desire to have any more of our media fall into your hands, tainted as News International is by a history of completely unacceptable journalistic practices…we hope you will respect the widespread expressions of public opinion and change News Corporation’s commercial strategy in this country. We therefore ask, both on behalf of our party but also on behalf of a very large number of people in this country, that you now withdraw your News Corp bid for BSkyB and concentrate all of your efforts on cleaning up News International.”

I won’t argue with that. But there is a wider issue at stake here. While I am delighted that Murdoch has today withdrawn the bid for BSkyB, this sorry saga isn’t all about him or News International. Instead, it has exposed the brutal realities and viciousness of the culture at the heart of the news industry.

Yes, question should now be asked as to whether Rupert and James Murdoch are “fit and proper people” to be holding a broadcasting license. But we can’t allow the debate to become constricted around the Murdochs’ “fitness” and the emphasis should be firmly on examining ways of completely overhauling the industry and reconstructing media empires. With so many executives now completely discredited, more important questions must be answered about how news agencies are run: should they be run as personal fiefdoms or can we now address critical issues of governance that have for so long been neglected? I personally hold the view that independent representation on news bodies is an idea worthy of consideration, as would be any other proposals to bring a greater degree of transparency into media operations.

Particularly concerning has been what recent revelations have uncovered about relationships between the media and the police. Again, I don’t feel the need to enter into the detail – but at best the police come out of this looking weak, feeble and grossly incompetent. At worst they are corrupt, with officers being bought and sold. I don’t feel we’ve heard the last on this and I will reserve judgment until more is known about the motivations of key players, but it certainly seems as though the police service’s credibility with the public has been compromised to a greater degree than the Murdochs’. As Brian Paddick argues with conviction, the police investigation into phone hacking was “a complete mess”.

Also, perhaps it is also finally time to be taking a closer look at regulating private investigators?

There must now be more transparency at the heart of government. While the political response in the last week has been exceptionally good, it is undeniably true that relationships between politicians and the media have come under increased scrutiny. As Tim Farron made clear in yesterday’s Independent, “Labour and the Conservatives spent decades cosying up to Rupert Murdoch and his cronies in the hope of an endorsement or a favourable headline...what David Cameron, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown knew about the practices of the newspapers they sought to curry favour with, no one knows, but it appears they certainly didn't waste much energy finding out.” If Murdoch ruled, it was with the tacit approval of successive Conservative and Labour governments.

Dennis Skinner, speaking in the Commons today, complained of politicians of “all parties sucking up to Murdoch”. He is mistaken. I will address the Liberal Democrats’ relationship with Murdoch and his empire, but does Skinner seriously believe that Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, the Democratic Unionists, the SDLP et al have really been as keen to jump into bed with Murdoch as the Tories and Skinner’s own party?

Tim Farron was at pains to point out that the Liberal Democrats avoided Murdoch. This is, of course, absolutely true. Vince Cable’s determination to “declare war on Murdoch” may have been inappropriately expressed to undercover Telegraph journalists, but it was evidence of a determination to stand up to the man and everything he represented. Similarly, it was Liberal Democrats who in 2003 supported a ban on newspapers and private investigators making payments to police officers and – when news of phone hacking first emerged – called for a judicial inquiry and questioned the role of Andy Coulson.

And, let’s be honest, Murdoch has never been too keen on the Liberal Democrats. Steve Richards, writing in The Independent, observed this: “Look also what happened to Nick Clegg during the last election. Clegg had never engaged in wooing. In response to his surging popularity, the Tory-supporting newspapers, including most of those at News International, turned on him, again working closely with Coulson.” Murdoch’s papers have hardly been kind in recent months.

I’m not saying this simply to demonstrate how “pure” we are as a party, untainted by association with the Murdochs. Instead, I’m arguing that Liberal Democrats have been at the forefront of efforts to reform the way the media operates and therefore are in a strong position to push for change in the light of current events. We have always been a party that is naturally suspicious of vested interests, unaccountable authority and excessive concentrations of power – all of which apply to Murdoch and his ilk.

I hope that a full and proper inquiry will provide the answers the public deserve, and that those guilty of wrongdoing will receive appropriate punishments. However, that is not the only necessary outcome; justice will not have been achieved until the culture of British journalism – which not only allowed for such abuses to go on for so long but led media executives to believe they were above the law – is radically overhauled.

The final word goes to Tim Farron, whose piece in The Independent perfectly encapsulates my own thinking. The phone hacking scandal affords us an opportunity to reform our media which must be taken. “We need a new order. Journalists must act ethically and obey the law. The police must never breach their bond of trust with the public and politicians must put people before the powerful.”

Great stuff, Tim. Now let's make it happen.

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