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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.