Do you look at hacks in anger?
You know things are bad when you can’t give away a free copy of the Times. Then again, in S
There has not been a whiff of Hackgate in our local paper, which this week was leading with the usual mix of planning disputes and concerns over low-level vandalism: bins torn from their fixings and - I kid you not - "fruit thrown around the car park". It made me wonder how much impact the hacking anger is having on people in areas such as this - in squeezed Middle England, where the worries are more about tomato blight than blagging. National opinion polls have shown an unclear effect on voting intentions, though analysis from UK Polling Report found Ed Miliband's personal ratings to have enjoyed a significant boost.
An awful lot of police time is going to be spent contacting no fewer than 4,000 potential victims of phone-hacking from Glenn Mulcaire's notes alone; that is mainly celebs and politicians who will be able to claim payouts, presumably to fund an extra holiday here or a new car there. Meanwhile, down here in Sussex, we have raging fuel prices and a small rural crime wave - lots of thefts from farm buildings, not to mention all that fruit being thrown around the car park. And more than 1,000 police jobs being cut.
So when, on behalf of the New Statesman, I conducted a small and unscientific survey (aren't they all?) at the school gates, I expected to find that the scandal in London and the amount of professional time devoted to it by police and politicians was considered overblown. The results were telling.
Country to commuter land
The parents at my local school are an ordinary bunch, in the best way. Some work, some don't, they have mixed political views, they are interested in "the news" but not to the exclusion of everything else in life, and they certainly wouldn't let it get in the way of a PTA meeting or a summer fete. Of the eight respondents to my survey, all of them professed themselves interested in "Hackgate", and six said they had discussed it with friends in the past week. But how deep does that interest go?
First, I asked roughly how many people the police now believe may have been hacked and I gave some numbers to choose from. This information came from the evidence that Sue Akers, deputy assistant commissioner of the Met, gave about Glenn Mulcaire's notebook to the home affairs select committee the previous week. One person got the right answer - 4,000. Most went for the middle option of 500. (Choosing somewhere in the middle when you don't know the answer is pretty common in surveys.)
Next I gave a list of names and asked them to circle who had resigned in the past week. Seven out of eight got Paul Stephenson, six got Rebekah Brooks. Two got John Yates, but that was quite impressive as he had resigned only that afternoon. There were two Andy Coulsons, and not a single Les Hinton. But not bad.
The answers to the third question really surprised me. I asked them to name who was appearing before the culture, media and sport select committee the following day and, being a media junkie whose entire week was arranged around it, assumed that everybody would know. But only one person did (she has a job that enables her to listen to Radio 4 all day while she works). Seven of the eight knew about Brooks's appearance, but only that single person also named both Murdochs. This, despite saturation coverage over the previous three days of the father and son's unprecedented appearance before MPs. Two people guessed Coulson in addition to Brooks, and one other Rupert Murdoch.
I don't think this is a rural blind spot. I was on a commuter train in London the day Brooks resigned. "Rebekah quits", screamed the London Evening Standard, above a near-full-page picture of Brooks face to face with Rupert Murdoch. A woman in a suit turned to her friend. "Who is that?" she asked. "Oh . . . is that the one who's been tapping phones?"
The cost of petrol, Northern Ireland, the summer holidays, Sats results, pensions, the weather, work, a local Ofsted report, supermarket prices - these are the issues that the people I asked said they had spent more time discussing in the past two weeks than Hackgate. Nothing unusual about that. Life tends to take precedence over headlines.
Taking a stand
Yet just because the details of Hackgate are fuzzy, like the opinion polls, does not mean there has not been a profound impact. I asked whether there was any resentment at how much police time being spent on Hackgate and found none. The firm opinion was that every single victim should be contacted. "Celebrities have the same legal rights as everyone else." "Nobody should have to have their messages listened to."
This unyielding attitude - the ordinary, decent person's bottom line - struck me as significant. And it seems as if it will have an impact not on political support, but on the media.
I asked which newspapers each respondent's household had bought in the past seven days. Nobody admitted to buying any tabloids. (Really?) They had bought the Telegraph, the Observer, the Times, Financial Times, the Guardian and half of them the local paper - the one with the fruit in the car park. But no fewer than three of the eight stressed "no News International papers". Two of these were normally regular Times readers. A fourth person described having been at a local hotel where free papers were being given away that morning, and how people were refusing to take the Times. "You have to make a stand, don't you?" said one. "What they did was disgusting."
It's only a snapshot, but it seems to suggest very bad news for News International. And this was before anybody knew about the death of the former News of the World reporter-turned-whistleblower Sean Hoare.