The real hacking scandal

Today's select committee hearing in perspective.

Earlier today, before the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport, four men sat and answered questions.

The men were former News International lawyers Tom Crone and Jon Chapman, the former News of the World editor Colin Myler, and the former News International Director of Human Resources, Daniel Cloke. The first to be questioned were Cloke and Chapman, and then it was Crone and Myler.

As one expected, this resulted in a complex exercise of providing answers and non-answers, of points made and points deliberately missed, and of convenient vagueness and suddenly useful precision. Certain things were remembered very well, and other things just not recalled at all. It seemed at times that the select committee hearing may have well taken place in a room full of mud and fog. And the blame was passed around like a parcel at a children's party.

But thanks to the gallant and persistent (and well-prepared) questioning of select committee members of all parties, a slightly clearer picture is now emerging of what the News of the World did in respect of the conviction of Clive Goodman in January 2007, and the events which then followed; even if the exact contributions of the four men questioned today remains to be fully established.

The dismissal of Goodman was not seemingly inevitable, even though News International appear to have been aware that he was intending to plead guilty. It seems Andy Coulson, the then editor of News of the World, wanted Goodman to stay on or be re-employed. This, of course, sits oddly with Coulson's later insistence that Goodman was a lone rogue in the newsroom.

It will take a day or two to fully digest what Crone and the others have now added to what was known at News International, and when, about the extent of phone hacking. In all this, what was or was not known by the hapless James Murdoch is perhaps a red herring: it is now clear that a significant number of senior News International executives and lawyers were well aware that Clive Goodman was not acting on a frolic of his own.

What is now coming apart is the cynical strategy adopted by News International in trying to close down the story about the criminality of their reporters; a strategy which presumably informed how News International dealt with Parliament, the Metropolitan Police, the Press Complaints Commission, the claimants in civil litigation, and so on.

In all of this, two points remain stark. First, there is still no good reason to suppose that phone hacking was confined to the News of the World. Indeed, the "Operation Motorman" exercise of the Information Commissioner's Office from 2003 to 2006 shows that the trade in unlawfully obtained information (other than phone hacking) was rife throughout Fleet Street. It was just that the clumsy hacking of the Royal Household telephones by Mulcaire and Goodman could not be ignored.

Second, there was a general failure of the British polity over the last ten years to address the casual criminal behaviour of tabloid journalists. One by one those entities charged with upholding the public interest failed to deal fully with the wrongful conduct at the time: the PCC and then Parliament seem to have been misled; and the police inexplicably narrowed its initial investigation before deciding to take no further action. With the exception of the Guardian, it was left to the civil claimant lawyers, and the New York Times, to expose the scale of the phone hacking scandal. Without these actors, there would not have been a select committee hearing today.

The hacking of mobile telephones, as with the other methods of illegally obtaining personal information, was, without doubt, common in the tabloid sector in the years leading up to 2006 (and perhaps beyond). It has now taken five years and the intervention of the Guardian, the New York Times, and the civil courts, for us to even have got this far in finding out whatever really happened regarding phone hacking. Without the initial intervention of the Royal Household none of this may have occurred. In the twenty-first century it surely should not be left to the Crown to play such a significant role.

This five year delay, and the inability of those who were supposed to protect us to actually do so in the years before, is the reason why the Leveson Inquiry should be as wider-ranging as possible.

Something went badly wrong and, worse still, we may never have even found out. That is the real scandal.

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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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