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.)

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.