A critical and liberal look at law and policy

RSS

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.