Murdoch, Coulson and Rooney

A week of scandals, some of which the press are more keen to expose than others.

What is most extraordinary about the News of the World phone-hacking affair - revived by a New York Times investigation - is the insouciant attitude of the Metropolitan Police. Its senior officers long refused to take their inquiries beyond Clive Goodman, the NotW royal reporter, and his associate Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator. The two were sent to jail in January 2007 for intercepting the communications of aides to Princes William and Harry. At the time, Mulcaire admitted hacking the messages of several others, including the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, the model Elle Macpherson and Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association. We now know that Mulcaire possessed dozens more mobile phone PIN codes that allowed him to access messages, that the police made little effort to discover if he had used them, and that, since some names were clearly of little interest to a royal reporter, other NotW journalists were probably involved.

There is no public interest defence to phone hacking. Strangely, however, it ceases to be a criminal offence once a voicemail message has been heard by the intended recipient. One can see, therefore, why the police thought further investigations might be a waste of time. But it seems astonishing they did not immediately inform the owners of phones that the security of their messages was potentially at risk. It strikes me as like failing to inform householders that burglars held copies of their front-door keys. Many victims discovered they had been hacked only when their lawyers - hoping, as one said to the New York Times, for "a Willy Wonka golden ticket" of damages from the NoW - told them to make inquiries.
By then, phone company records had, in many cases, been destroyed. Red-top newspapers and the police have a symbiotic relationship. Thereporters tend to print anything the police tell them, presenting investigations in a positive light and, in defiance of contempt laws, presenting as fact evidence that defames the chief suspect. To unearth vital information, the unregulated press can use methods that the rule-bound police dare not use. Rupert Murdoch's News International, the NoW's owner, has already paid substantial out-of-court settlements to three hacking victims, including Taylor. If, as the Guardian claims, hundreds more have been hacked, the bill could run into many millions of pounds and cost several reporters their jobs. Officers' instincts would be to save their friends such embarrassment, and to save themselves from any dirt Murdoch's papers care to fling at them. Like others in public life, they know not to make an enemy of the Murdoch press.

Signore Rupert

That applies to politicians, too. Several former Labour ministers have confirmed their phones may have been hacked. Why now? John Prescott, for example, knew about it in February. Did he and other ministers, who had already lost Murdoch's formal support, wish to avoid further provocation to his papers in the run-up to the election? Sometimes, I wonder if Britain has developed its own Silvio Berlusconi, a media figure so powerful that even his political opponents hesitate to cross him. The difference is that Murdoch has never got elected as prime minister. He doesn't need to.

Unknown knowns

Andy Coulson, NotW editor at the time of the Goodman/Mulcaire scandal and now David Cameron's press chief, is possibly telling the truth. He has persistently denied he knew about the hacking. Perhaps this was what ­Donald Rumsfeld would call an "unknown known". In other words, Coulson knew hacking went on - just as he knew reporters fiddled their expenses - but didn't inquire into specific instances. Most editors would want assurances that a big story was reliably sourced, and even ask to see the evidence behind it, but wouldn't necessarily ask how it was obtained. Many reporters would think such a question impertinent, just as they would if an editor asked about the authenticity of a restaurant or hotel receipt.

None of this should save Coulson's job. Once a spin-doctor himself becomes the story, his usefulness is at an end. In New Labour's time, both Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan had to leave for that reason. Coulson - who performed his main function of securing Murdoch's support for Cameron before the election - should follow them.

Brand Rooney

Not everything the NotW does is wrong. Some might regard it as a gross intrusion of privacy, but the exposure of Wayne Rooney's assignations with a prostitute seems to me entirely justified. Rooney's supposedly happy marriage is part of his "brand" and he makes money from it. He and his wife, Coleen, earned substantial sums from Hello! for the rights to cover her 21st birthday party, and £2.5m from OK! for the wedding in Portofino. Neither can now complain if the public also share details of less happy times.

God, he's good

In a week of many scandals - not just phone-hacking and philandering, but also William Hague's curious behaviour and continued speculation about match-fixing in cricket - God did well to get the front-page splash in the Times on two consecutive days. Since He is said to be privy to our innermost secrets, I thought for a moment He was in breach of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Instead, we learned only that He didn't create the universe, which hardly counts as news, except to several million Americans. But I can assure you: He shifts copies. The New Statesman issue with God on the cover has long been one of the year's bestsellers. If He's out of a job, I'd gladly hire Him as circulation manager.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right