Leading figures from the Labour Government last night waded into the phone hacking affair by issuing their reactions to the media select committee report (full report here) which claimed there was ‘collective amnesia’ at the News of The World.
Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw issued a statement, saying:
“This report contains extremely serious questions for News International. It says law breaking was condoned and that the company sought to conceal the truth. We welcome the report and are considering what further action may be needed to be taken.”
Downing Street also commented to the Guardian about the report. It said:
“The scale of this is absolutely breathtaking and an extreme cause for concern.”
The Guardian issued its own statement on the phone-hacking allegations it brought to the public, saying the committee had:
Inevitably the reaction from News International was stormier. It also issued a statement in which it accused the committee of failing to ‘come up with any new evidence to support The Guardian’s allegations”.
‘Sadly, this has not stopped certain members of the Committee from resorting to innuendo, unwarranted inference and exaggeration,’it said.
The reaction from figures in the Labour Party follows News International using its Sun newspaper to unceremoniously drop its backing for Gordon Brown’s Government the day after his address to last year’s Labour Party Conference.
Neither Bradshaw nor Brown is a stranger to wading into arguments with NI. In November, Bradshaw accused the Conservative Party of sub-contracting its media policy to News International and condemned the company’s ‘rapacious’ proprietor, Rupert Murdoch.
Brown’s own denunciation of NI came when he criticised the Sun newspaper, accusing it of trying to “become a political party” and saying it “made a terrible mistake” when it decided to switch allegiance and back the Conservative party.
John Whittingdale, Conservative MP and chairman of the media select committee, dismissed suggestion from News International that party politics played its part in the formation of the report. He told the Today programme this morning:
‘I can understand why News International is unhappy about the report. I would say that the vast majority of the report was agreed by the whole [cross party] committeeâ€¦
‘The 160 pages [of the report], the vast majority of which deal with more important issues in my view, that is how we protect press freedom against the cost of defamation, how we protect press standards.”
Committe member (and Labour MP) Tom Watson has just contributed his thoughts – “serious questions for News International” – to the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog.
Today’s report saved some of its most harsh criticism for the Press Complaints Commission, which it said ‘lacked teeth”.
Whittingdale told the Today programme that the PCC ‘does a lot of good work but it does not command public confidence’and that was one of the contributory factors to recommending an increase in its powers.
(The PCC has issued a length statement in response to the report)
Baroness Peta Buscombe, chairman of the PCC, later told Radio 5 Live’s breakfast show (About 2 hours 40 minutes in) she welcomed the committee’s report but said it was the third report in recent years to be ‘pretty tough on a small organisation like the PCC”.
Buscombe rejected the report’s claim that the PCC “lacked teeth” and questioned the recommendations for it to introduce financial penalties which she said could have a ‘downside effect”.
‘We have to make sure any changes we make are practicalâ€¦whatever changes we make have to make a real difference.”
“The committee recommendation that the PCC should be given the power to close a newspaper down for a day was met with hostility from Buscombe.
‘This I think it pretty dangerous stuff. This is stuff that would only happen in somewhere like North Korea…
“The difficulty I have with this report, which in many ways is welcome, is that it does not have any evidence to back the recommendations it is making.
‘There is a real lack of analysis here and reliance on all sorts of people, some of who don’t have very much authority. [This] includes lawyers who don’t like the PCC because we are fast, we are free, we are flexible and as long as people are coming to us they are not paying lawyers fees.”
Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, sided with Buscombe’s negative assessment of the call for the PCC to have the power to block the presses of newspapers.
He told BBC News (we can’t find the clip so have linked to a transcript on the SoE website):
“On the question of suspending publicationâ€¦ That is the kind of censorship that is usually associated with dictators and totalitarian regimes; there is no place for it in a democracy.”
Satchwell said the phone-hacking elements of the report needed to be looked at in context.
‘The inquiry looked into several important issues. The first 43 paragraphs of 90-odd paragraphs of recommendations set out the urgent need for reform of the libel laws that restrict the whole of the media including the BBC as well as scientists and academics.
‘Second, newspapers consider millions of stories every year, only a very small number give cause for complaint.
‘And third, the committee is made up of MPs of all parties each of which may have axes to grind and the Conservative’s communications director used to be editor of the News of the world.”
Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, said despite the spectacle of politicians and Rupert Murdoch falling out over ethics suggested some of the irony ‘of bald men squabbling over a comb’the report deserved to be taken seriously.
‘For News International to accuse the committee of ‘bias and distortion’ because it examined a serious episode of phone hacking indicates a lack of appreciation of the important ethical issues involved.
“The News of the World phone hacking incident underlines the need to reform the Press Complaints Commission, whose predisposition towards protecting the wishes of publishers rather than the public interest has robbed it of any real public confidence.
“The committee’s finding that investigative journalism in Britain is being ‘deterred by the threat and cost of having to defend libel actions’ is a welcome recognition of a serious problem which needs urgent remedy to defend the people’s right to information of public interest and consequence.”
More reaction to follow…