The bullies, bullied

News International is today the victim of events, not the master.

Yesterday was rather frantic for News International: Rebekah Brooks's email, Glenn Mulcaire's apology, and Ford pulling its advertising from the News of the World for the time being. Who knows what was happening away from the public view.

Today may well see further significant developments, perhaps even sackings or resignations. But in all this extraordinary activity it is useful to pause and think about how the current scandal came into being, and what it may indicate.

First, there is the question of timing. The news about Milly Dowler's phone being hacked came almost from nowhere. There was no objective event, such as an arrest or a charge, to explain why this story was published at this time.

As it has turned out, the Dowler revelation is just one of a number of alleged examples where the phones of those simply caught up in a news story have been hacked: victims, friends, and families. These were not members of the Royal Household, as were those in the first phase of revelations; nor were they the celebrities and media people who constituted the second phase of revelations.

These are ordinary people without any public profile other than the unfortunate events which were inflicted upon them.

And out of all these many cases, someone, somewhere chose the Milly Dowler story as the first one to now get into the public domain. The person that made that decision is a practical genius. That Milly Dowler's phone was hacked when she was missing was simply disgusting, and its disclosure was inevitably going to be newsworthy.

But why was that hacking disclosed now?

It may well be that it was sensible to wait to the end of the recent murder trial. It may be that this was the optimal week for disrupting the proposed full acquisition by News Corporation of BSkyB.

Whatever explains the timing, the choice of the Milly Dowler case as the first one of the "ordinary people" cases to lead on was made -- consciously or not -- during a perfect storm combining the renewed awareness of the awful facts of her disappearance and death with the commercial vulnerability of the Murdoch empire.

The second interesting feature of the developing scandal is the weakness of the News International response.

For a media organisation who deals with those engaged in reputation management on a daily basis, the reaction of News International was unimpressive. Yesterday's email from Rebekah Brooks was barely even literate, with "allegeds" and "allegations" inserted so as to render propositions and sentences almost meaningless. The unfortunate spokesperson put up for interviews on the evening news came across as evasive and hapless.

However, this flat-footedness should not be any surprise.

The tactic of News International at each phase of the scandal is to try and close the matter down by explaining away the available facts. Hence we have had the "lone rogue reporter" theory for the Royal Household hackings; and the dismissive "just media tittle-tattle" excuses for the celebrity hackings. That the hacking have now moved on to ordinary people caught up in events has exposed the limitations of previous narratives.

As it stands, News International clearly cannot decide whether to claim it has all the necessary facts (so that it can say that the problem has been dealt with) or that it has not got the necessary facts (so that it cannot comment on what it does not know).

And News International also seems not to know what to say or do about Glenn Mulcaire. On one hand, it is has been very convenient for Mulcaire to be caught by the confidentiality provisions of a settlement agreement, but such a settlement agreement only makes legal sense if he indeed had any employment claims against News International: that he was an employee.

Now, on the other hand, News International is now desperate to distance him as a "freelance inquiry agent". If that is correct, then the settlement agreement binding him to confidentiality would appear to be consistent with it being merely a useful device so as to prevent unwelcome disclosures. They cannot have it both ways.

The stories so far put out by News International are now unravelling. It is early to tell what actually did happen. But it is certain that the "lone rogue reporter" and "freelance inquiry agent" explanatory tactics may be of limited value, if they are of any value at all. However, it must be remembered: the "lone rogue reporter" excuse was the one which Murdoch, Coulson, and Brooks have wanted us -- and Parliament -- to believe all along.

Also for some time, politicians and other journalists have -- as has been pointed out repeatedly by Tom Watson MP -- been too scared to take on News International. But News International surely cannot bully its way out of this scandal as it is today. Whatever damage limitation exercise they mount in the coming hours, their intimidatory bluff has now been called. It is now News International that is having pressure applied upon it so as to force involuntary outcomes.

News International is currently the victim of events, not the master.

If Hugh Grant was able to show a bugger bugged, today we may be seeing what happens when a bully is bullied .

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of New Statesman and was shortlisted the George Orwell blogging prize in 2010.

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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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories