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7 July 2011

Tabloids and the abuse of power

Why there should be a full judicial inquiry into phone hacking.

By David Allen Green

Anyone caught up in a significant news story from the advent of mobile telephones in the late 1990s to the arrest of Clive Goodman in 2006, and perhaps for some time afterwards, may well have had their phone messages hacked into by tabloid journalists or those working on their behalf. This is because the tabloids had the power to do this, and it is clear this power was widely abused

It would also appear that political pressure was applied to ensure that this activity was never properly investigated. For some unknown reason the Metropolitan Police narrowed and then closed down any competent investigation of this activity when it first came to light. Had the scandal not involved members of the Royal Household, there may have been no prosecutions at all. It is a curious thing – and not, in this instance, an unwelcome one – that the monarchy still has some practical use in public life. It is difficult to bully the Crown.

Power always tends to get abused, and those with absolute power will (logically) face no checks on their abuses. In the view of many people, the trade unions abused their power in the 1960s and 1970s. Others would say that the police have also long abused powers, especially in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the inner cities and on picket lines in the 1980s, and in respect of public order and “anti-terrorism” matters since 9/11. And there are many other examples, from bankers to libel litigants. Those who have power – especially absolute power in a given situation – will tend to abuse it for the same reason dogs lick themselves: simply because they can.

And because any person can abuse power, there always needs to be checks. The partisan will want the checks only to be for the “other side”. Indeed, one good test of partisanship is whether it is openly accepted “your side” can also abuse power, and that it is crucially important to deal with this. The genius of George Orwell and others is their candour that even progressive and well-meaning people need to be held accountable too, whatever the slogans or legitimising constituencies invoked.

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There are those who believe the police can do no wrong, or that trade unions can never be faulted. There are even those who will contend that bankers are simply misunderstood. Often this selective blindness comes from some ideological fixation: “they protect the public”, “they represent their members”, or “the market cannot be bucked”. For defenders of the tabloids it will be “freedom of the press” or “giving the public what they want”. There is almost always some greater good which is supposedly being served when someone is abusing their power. It is rare, and somehow more frightening, when a figure like Orwell’s O’Brien expressly abuses power for its own sake.

Bullying is when the abuse of power is accompanied – or even made possible – by fear. The fear then prevents checks being used, or created to begin with. This fear may be a selfish and personal one: what can the bully do to me? Or it may be a perfectly understandable fear of what would happen to others, whether it be one’s family or one’s fellow citizens.

What seems to have happened over the last week or two is that some of the fear of tabloids has gone from more politicans. That is good and refreshing, and it is certainly a start. We may have even tipped off that very point where others will now break cover. But such a welcome change of mood may not last, and it actually achieves nothing by itself. What needs to be looked at are effective checks so as to prevent abuses ever happening again.

There needs to be a full and independent judicial inquiry into the whole sordid and sorry mess of tabloid phone hacking, and this inquiry should be open with the evidence (as far as it can be) placed in the public domain. Witnesses should be on oath, and there should be the power to compel evidence. As long as it is managed carefully by a senior judge, there is no necessary reason why it cannot start before the end of any criminal proceedings. We should not have to wait nearly two years or so.

Abuses of power and bullying by any person will corrupt any liberal democracy. But there is an opportunity now to bring one form of bullying to an end, and to seek to prevent the privacy abuses of the tabloids recurring. So please do support the new campaign for a full judicial inquiry, and sign the petition here.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

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