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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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