Time for a reality check on phone-hacking

Panto season came early for Labour MP Tom Watson who indulged in a bit of grandstanding in the House yesterday during the phone-hacking debate:

He said: “Something very dark lurks in the evidence files of the Mulcaire case, and dark and mysterious forces are keeping it that way.

“They, the barons of the media with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle. They have no predators, they are untouchable, they laugh at the law, they sneer at Parliament, they have the power to hurt us and they do with gusto and precision. We are afraid, and if we oppose this resolution it is our shame.

“The most powerful people in the land – prime ministers, ministers and MPs of every party – are guilty in their own way of perpetuating a media culture that allows the characters of the decent to be traduced out of casual malice, for money, for spite, for sport, for any reason they like. And if we reject this resolution, we will be guilty of letting it happen.”

While I would be the first to argue that national newspapers should be a lot more transparent in the way they operate, because of all the power they wield, a reality check is needed.

Following the 2006 News of the World phone-hacking scandal two full-time employees went to prison and the editor resigned, it is difficult to see what more the NoW could have done at the time to draw a line under the affair. And considering how widespread phone-hacking appears to have been elsewhere on Fleet Street would it really have been fair for them to do any more? It seems clear that phone-hacking was more widespread at the NoW, and elsewhere, than we have been led to believe and that executives were at best guilty of naivety for suggesting otherwise.

But before we get carried away with concerns about the runaway power of the tabloid press – let’s remember that this country has some of the toughest libel laws in the world and that the privacy provisions of the Human Rights Act have given celebrities more power than ever to suppress the adulterous reality behind their squeaky clean public images.  Rupert Murdoch is hated by the current Opposition for the openly partisan way The Sun campaigned aganst them in the run up to the last election – and before that in the 1980s and 1990s.

But he has also invested hundreds of millions in supporting loss-making news operations like The Times and Sky News which even Watson would have to agree have been a force for enormous public good.

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