Insight and analysis from Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford

PCC undermines NoW investigation which Guardian bet the farm on

The Guardian today launched a furious broadside against a PCC report which accused the paper of over-egging its claims of widespread phone-hacking at the News of the World.

The watchdog says in a report released yesterday: '…the Commission could not help but conclude that the Guardian's stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given.

"Perhaps this was because the sources could not be tested; or because Nick Davies was unable to shed further light on the suggestions of a broader conspiracy at the newspaper; or because there was significant evidence to the contrary from the police; or because so much of the information was old and had already appeared in the public domain (or a combination of these factors).

"Whatever the reason, there did not seem to be anything concrete to support the implication that there had been a hitherto concealed criminal conspiracy at the News of the World to intrude into people's privacy."

The PCC's statement undermines a story which The Guardian bet the farm on with a page one splash on 9 July – and more than 100 stories since then.

It is a story which led to a series of News of the World executives, and former editor Andy Coulson, all being dragged before MPs.

Today The Guardian responded to the PCC report by quoting MPs who have called it a 'whitewash", publishing a stinging editorial condemning the report as 'complacent" and a lengthy comment piece by lead reporter on the story Nick Davies in which he accuses the PCC of ignoring the evidence.

There is a big whiff of doubt over whether knowledge of phone-hacking at the News of the World was confined to royal editor Clive Goodman, and paid-up private investigator Glenn Mulcaire.

But beyond turning up an email of a bugged phone transcript from 2005 headed up "this is for Neville" [presumably chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck], The Guardian has found no compelling evidence of a conspiracy to mislead police, MPs and the BBC as it suggests.

Press Gazette's reporting from the time the Goodman scandal first broke, back in 2006, suggested that illegally listening to mobile phone messages, or 'screwing'them, was rife before on Fleet Street before the police made examples of Goodman and Mulcaire by sending them to prison.

My hunch is that phone-hacking probably was more widespread at the NoW, and elsewhere – before the Goodman case.

But The Guardian appears to have fallen down by using the sort of sensationalist tabloid tactics that it so strongly criticises.

Yes it did reveal that the NoW paid out £1m in legal costs and damages to the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association Graham Taylor and two others in privacy payments linked to the illegal hacking of mobile phones.

And Nick Davies did dig up extra information from the Information Commissioner's Operation Motorman inquiry of 2003 revealing that 27 journalists from the NoW purchased hundreds of pieces of private information which was potentially in breach of the Data Protection Act.

But it appears that all these individual facts were sewn together to create a story which adds to more than the sum of its parts.

There has undoubtedly been some dodgy stuff going on at the NoW, and elsewhere, but Davies has yet to produce a silver bullet which nails any NoW employee beyond Goodman (who paid his heavy price) and editor Andy Coulson (who lost his job over the affair).

It is difficult to see where we go from here - beyond getting the PCC and the Information Commissioner to mount costly forensic inquiries into the extent to which every national newspaper has been involved in illegally buying and selling private information in recent years. Such an investigation would be devilishly difficult because in so many cases investigators would have to weigh up the difficult to pin down public interest defence.

And would it really be the best use of the two bodies' limited resources?


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