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Tuesday, 19 July 2011


Today the great and the not so good who presided over the shocking saga of phone hacking at the News of the World will appear before a committee of MPs to be held to account. (Or at least those not under arrest will.)

As a piece of political theatre no doubt it will be gripping. It may even provide some of the answers to important questions about who knew what and when.

But it cannot hope to address the fundamental issues raised by this scandal, not least because of the extent to which politicians have been made complicit by their failure to act. So there will be the inquiries and possibly, perhaps probably, the prosecutions.

As I write this I am on holiday abroad, not on-line much and therefore very much out of the loop. Muffled cries of more resignations and arrests have filtered through, but the allegations of wrongdoing seem essentially unchanged. As appalling as the story has been, in recent days there has been a sense of stasis, of further revelations going over old ground. There may be little more that can usefully be said at this point.

And yet I can’t stop thinking about it. Why? What is it about this story that makes me keep turning it over in my head? I keep on worrying at it, trying to make sense of it. Conflicts still rage around the globe, nations teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. A few hacked messages, the attempted smash and grab of a politician’s bank details, seem pretty small beer by comparison.

So why do I care so much? Is it the ruthless power of a media dynasty? The household names who cried foul but were deemed fair game? The politicians who raged and wept in private but in public kissed their tormentors and wished them well?

I think it is because it has shaken my faith in the system. It has made me question whether I really know the country I have lived in all my life. I am aware this sounds rather melodramatic. Maybe it is. Maybe I’m a bit hysterical; maybe not.

I wrote recently about democracy, about the fact that I worked for a long time in the Scottish Parliament and that, during meetings with politicians from emerging democracies, I felt very lucky that I happened to live here and now, in a political system where, basically, those in charge follow the rules. I felt lucky to live in a country with a delicate system of checks and balances, evolved and refined over many decades, which protects us from corruption and power without responsibility. But, in relation to hacking, that system failed.

I am reminded of the received wisdom about great disasters. In essence, "man-made” disasters occur when not one but several mechanisms fail simultaneously. We have been failed by not one, but three of our most important institutions: an elected parliament accountable to the people, a free press, and an independent police force. If this wrongdoing had not been exposed, who knows how much further we would have drifted toward catastrophic democratic failure.

Again my melodrama detector is flickering. But it is difficult to overstate the seriousness of what has been uncovered. The unscrupulous behaviour of some journalists on one newspaper, or even a number of newspapers, is only the beginning. The serious breach of trust is that, as evidence of that behaviour began to emerge, politicians failed to act decisively, the police failed to investigate fully, the wider press failed to report. The refined system of checks and balances did not work, more than that, barely seemed to exist.

But we have been fortunate. We have been fortunate to have practitioners in these institutions who were not persuaded to let questions lie unanswered. The story may never have seen the light of day if not for the exemplary journalism of Nick Davies and The Guardian. MPs such as Tom Watson, Chris Bryant and Norman Fowler continued to campaign on these issues when no-one wanted to listen.

But overall we cannot escape the fact that we have been let down. So how on earth did we get here?

The story of how sections of the press have increasingly felt an entitlement to private information is a whole other blog in itself. Suffice to say that the “they were asking for it defence” most recently expounded by the former News of the World journalist and moral amoeba Paul McMullan, is wearing pretty thin, not least because many of the victims of hacking were not celebrities or public figures. (Though frankly, I thought hacking was a pretty big deal even when it was starlets, and Max Clifford because rest assured, if they'll do it to the rich and famous, they'll do it to you.)

As for the politicians, I am glad they have acknowledged that things had got too cosy by half with the fourth estate.This is the ray of hope to have emerged in these murky times. If the main parties stand together, this is the best chance they will have had in many years to free themselves from their self imposed servitude.

For while there may have been reasons for politicians' complicity, there was no justification. If you put yourself forward for high public office we have a right to expect you to make brave moral choices. We certainly have a right to expect you to confront the abuse of power even where it might be held against your party or you personally. The alternative is a whole political class in hock to the media barons.

As for the Met police, their behaviour has in some ways troubled me most of all. Incompetence? Poor judgement? Cover-up? Corruption? I'm not loving any of those as explanations, to be honest. When we start to doubt the willingness of the police to investigate without fear or favour we really are in serious trouble.

So where do we go from here? Tougher regulation of the press is surely unavoidable. The PCC has been overseeing this essential national industry like the management committee of a private members club. That cannot continue. But we must remember that good journalists got us out of this hole when elected members, regulators and police were missing in inaction. We need a regulatory system that encourages and protects the kind of reporting undertaken by The Guardian on this story, while curbing the worst excesses of intrusion and abuse.

I don't accept that tougher regulation and press freedom are mutually exclusive. I have never believed that a regulatory and wider legal framework which protects legitimate private information and press freedom is beyond the wit of legislators. There are other areas of law, (medicine for example) which throw up difficult questions of competing rights, freedoms and responsibilities.

Frankly the issue, while complex, is not as impossible to resolve as some journalists would have as believe. In that respect we must remember that the media, as the messenger, is also the subject of the debate. This is quite unique. No other profession enjoys the privileged position of directly arguing its own case in the court of public opinion.

Of course we must listen to the views of the press on how their industry should be regulated. Their experience and insight is essential. But sometimes insight is gained at the expense of perspective and objectivity.

Stronger regulation does not have to mean a move away from self regulation. There are analagous examples such as the way in which doctors are “policed” by the General Medical Council which could be followed. Why can a body of (former) journalists and lay people could not be given the power to impose large fines and also decide that newspaper executives and editors may not be fit to hold senior positions?

I care passionately about the quality of the press in this country. It's not only the banks that are too important to fail. A strong and vocal press should be our national conscience, asking questions others would rather ignore, calling out bad decisions, forcing the body politic to acknowledge its failings.

Press, politicians, regulators, police, we need them all to act in the public interest, because the public interest is what matters.