Tabloids and the abuse of power

Why there should be a full judicial inquiry into phone hacking.

Anyone caught up in a significant news story from the advent of mobile telephones in the late 1990s to the arrest of Clive Goodman in 2006, and perhaps for some time afterwards, may well have had their phone messages hacked into by tabloid journalists or those working on their behalf. This is because the tabloids had the power to do this, and it is clear this power was widely abused

It would also appear that political pressure was applied to ensure that this activity was never properly investigated. For some unknown reason the Metropolitan Police narrowed and then closed down any competent investigation of this activity when it first came to light. Had the scandal not involved members of the Royal Household, there may have been no prosecutions at all. It is a curious thing - and not, in this instance, an unwelcome one - that the monarchy still has some practical use in public life. It is difficult to bully the Crown.

Power always tends to get abused, and those with absolute power will (logically) face no checks on their abuses. In the view of many people, the trade unions abused their power in the 1960s and 1970s. Others would say that the police have also long abused powers, especially in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the inner cities and on picket lines in the 1980s, and in respect of public order and "anti-terrorism" matters since 9/11. And there are many other examples, from bankers to libel litigants. Those who have power - especially absolute power in a given situation - will tend to abuse it for the same reason dogs lick themselves: simply because they can.

And because any person can abuse power, there always needs to be checks. The partisan will want the checks only to be for the "other side". Indeed, one good test of partisanship is whether it is openly accepted "your side" can also abuse power, and that it is crucially important to deal with this. The genius of George Orwell and others is their candour that even progressive and well-meaning people need to be held accountable too, whatever the slogans or legitimising constituencies invoked.

There are those who believe the police can do no wrong, or that trade unions can never be faulted. There are even those who will contend that bankers are simply misunderstood. Often this selective blindness comes from some ideological fixation: "they protect the public", "they represent their members", or "the market cannot be bucked". For defenders of the tabloids it will be "freedom of the press" or "giving the public what they want". There is almost always some greater good which is supposedly being served when someone is abusing their power. It is rare, and somehow more frightening, when a figure like Orwell's O'Brien expressly abuses power for its own sake.

Bullying is when the abuse of power is accompanied - or even made possible - by fear. The fear then prevents checks being used, or created to begin with. This fear may be a selfish and personal one: what can the bully do to me? Or it may be a perfectly understandable fear of what would happen to others, whether it be one's family or one's fellow citizens.

What seems to have happened over the last week or two is that some of the fear of tabloids has gone from more politicans. That is good and refreshing, and it is certainly a start. We may have even tipped off that very point where others will now break cover. But such a welcome change of mood may not last, and it actually achieves nothing by itself. What needs to be looked at are effective checks so as to prevent abuses ever happening again.

There needs to be a full and independent judicial inquiry into the whole sordid and sorry mess of tabloid phone hacking, and this inquiry should be open with the evidence (as far as it can be) placed in the public domain. Witnesses should be on oath, and there should be the power to compel evidence. As long as it is managed carefully by a senior judge, there is no necessary reason why it cannot start before the end of any criminal proceedings. We should not have to wait nearly two years or so.

Abuses of power and bullying by any person will corrupt any liberal democracy. But there is an opportunity now to bring one form of bullying to an end, and to seek to prevent the privacy abuses of the tabloids recurring. So please do support the new campaign for a full judicial inquiry, and sign the petition here.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.