No turning back

The <em>News of the World</em> phone hacking scandal is growing by the minute, and threatens to chan

Each hour brings new revelations. More victims of phonehacking are being identified -- not just celebrities, or politicians, whose discomfort we have tolerated in the past, but real people, ordinary people like us, whose private moments of anxiety, grief and despair have been listened in on, and used to fuel tabloid tales.

Ever since allegations broke that an investigator working for the News of the World had hacked the phone of a missing teenager, and deleted messages, this story has taken on a new life. A Facebook group calling for a boycott of the News of the World has thousands of members. More significantly, advertisers, who have been bombarded with complaints from their customers, are deciding to withdraw their brands from the toxic environment of the News of the World -- for now at least. This is no longer a trifling matter of ethics only of interest to the London media bubble or the pitchfork-wielding Twitchunters; this is the only story in town, and it has angered more than just dripping-wet liberal Guardian readers. The shock and dismay reaches out much further.

You wouldn't know that from reading the Sun, though. They have covered the unfolding drama at their parent company News International, and their sister paper the News of the World, as if it were happening in another world -- a minor scuffle, but nothing to see here: please distract yourself with these other stories, rather than reading these few lines about our troubles. Apparently, it's business as usual.

Except it isn't. Newspaper readers aren't mugs; Sun and News of the World readers aren't mugs. It's wrong to think of them as a tide of dumb morons who don't understand the gravity of what's going on; a bunch of dribbling zombies who will happily skip down to the newsagents on Sunday and buy their favourite paper regardless of its alleged misdemeanours. It might be easier for us to see the world in those terms, but I tend to have a bit more faith in newspaper readers -- including News of the World readers -- than that.

The Sun might not be giving the phonehacking drama the attention that its newsworthiness deserves, but that doesn't matter: punters will be hearing the story on the radio, seeing it on television, reading about it on the net and seeing it covered elsewhere. The Sun's own website has carried discussions about the phonehacking fiasco today on its forums -- though some threads appear to have mysteriously disappeared.

Calls for a boycott of this Sunday's News of the World -- and wider calls for a boycott of News Corporation products -- are increasing. This is not just a few silly vexatious lefties on Twitter getting in a tizzy, as these things are usually depicted; this is much wider than that. Corporations who didn't worry about seeing their products placed in the country's most popular newspaper when the first phonehacking revelations came out are now thinking again. This is a big deal.

Perhaps News International hopes it can ride out the story; perhaps it genuinely doesn't understand the storm that has been created; or maybe a sacrificial figure is being prepared, someone to blame so the so-called mob can be satisfied and everything can carry on just as it always was.

So where we go from here? We don't trust the papers to police themselves. We don't trust the Press Complaints Commission to police the papers. We don't trust politicians to police the papers. Left with no-one to rely on but themselves, the campaigners have targeted advertisers -- and the efforts are paying off, in the short term at least. But what happens next will go some way to deciding how the media go about their business in this country.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”