Sunday will be the test for the News of the World

If readers are outraged, the easiest course of action they can take is to stop buying the paper.

Sunday will be the test. Will regular News of the World buyers pick up another paper instead? Will advertisers want to remove their brands from a toxic publication? Or will millions of us - remember, it is in the millions - just carry on regardless?

The allegation that an investigator, paid by the News of the World, hacked into the phone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, is truly shocking. The further allegation, that messages were deleted to make room for more - giving a family false hope that their daughter might return home safely - is, if true, a thoroughly callous and despicable act.

There is a sense that a line has been crossed this time. The phone-hacking saga was barely of interest beyond the media bubble when it involved politicians, or even celebrities; but this new revelation is truly sickening - sickening for anyone who considers themselves to be a journalist or who cares about the ethics of their profession; and sickening for us as punters, as people who buy newspapers and care about what they produce.

There are times when breaking the law to get a story is justified, and there are times when some behaviour, even if it doesn't break the law, cannot be justified in the context of getting a story. This case, it would appear, is the latter. A police investigation was ongoing, and may potentially have been hampered by the actions of the News of the World's investigator. So who knew what was going on, and who is to blame?

As it stands, we are told that no-one knew that this had happened. And there is no reason to suppose this is not entirely true. But even if this was the 'one bad apple' who took things too far, an investigator who had gone rogue in the quest for new stories, completely outside of the knowledge of every single employee of the News of the World, I do not think that means that no-one there can be held responsible for his actions.

Who knew? We will be asked time and time again. Perhaps a better question is 'Who should have known?' or 'Why was a culture allowed to develop in which this kind of behaviour was seen as justifiable or acceptable?' The editor in charge of the News of the World at the time was Rebekah Brooks, now the chief executive at News International, who says she is as shocked and surprised as anyone.

Those of us who are appalled and dismayed by this latest story must be careful to act responsibly with our understandable anger. If we do not, we run the risk of being no better than the mobs who wrongly targeted innocent citizens after the News of the World released paedophiles' details back in the early 2000s.

That 'naming and shaming' was part of a campaign for 'Sarah's Law', where the newspaper placed itself on the side of victims and their families, demanding justice for those affected by crime. That it should have happened at a time when one family were apparently being given false hope that their daughter was safe, just so that someone working on behalf of the same newspaper could read more harrowing and intensely private messages left from concerned friends and relatives of a missing teenager, puts everything in a new focus. It is a messy, horrible and deeply saddening story.

And it's that humanity, the horrendous ordeal of the Dowler family, which must be kept in mind at all times when discussing this episode. It is at the heart of why this story matters, and it is at the heart of why this does not become a gleeful witch-hunt.

Instead, let the facts speak for themselves. If readers are outraged by the latest allegations, the easiest course of action they can take is to stop buying the paper. We will have to see whether that happens or not, starting this Sunday.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.