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.)

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

0800 7318496