They can't say they didn't know

Glen Newey · Hacks and Plods

As The Ballad of Reading Gaol says, all men kill the thing they love. Well, up to a point. Rupert Murdoch may have had a soft spot for the News of the World, but it’s as nothing to his amour propre and love of the power born of wealth. Murdoch knows that the papers now are good at best for pin money. The real aim is to fireproof NewsCorp’s global brand, ensuring that its big airtime account-holders don’t take fright. Then there’s the the BSkyB merger, which, after the consultation period ends today, can hardly go through on the nod, even if Sky News is ‘spun off’. A few hundred workers on a UK rag – 168-year history and all – are, as Hyman Roth says in The Godfather II, small potatoes.

Certain parallels between the press and the police catch the eye. Each has been subject to a self-administered ‘regulatory’ regime: the Press Complaints Commission and the old Police Complaints Authority, as well as the Metropolitan Police Service’s probes into its own corruption– bodies whose feebleness has long been held up to public ridicule. The same narcoleptic conceit about ‘rotten apples’ is trotted out whenever hacks or plods prove to have feet of clay. A couple of amoral journos at the News of the Screws, the odd busy on the take outside the Wapping McDonald’s, where brown envelopes seem to have been a regular side-order along with the Big Mac and fries. The clout of each interest group unmans even macho politicians, as the prime minister has shown this week. Legislators balk at legislating. Regulators regulate with a rod of jelly. The Crown Prosecution Service leaves its teeth in the bathroom.

It’s now clear that the bad fruit, in both professions, stretch to an orchard or two. There is not just similitude between Fleet Street and Bow Street, but symbiosis. The press refrains from exposing law-breaking by the law, which duly omits to set the dogs on press hackers. Each knows the other to be a serial offender. Journalists know that police officers were flouting laws against hawking personal data for cash, because the hacks themselves suborned it. Scotland Yard fails to nail the eavesdroppers who form its own clientele, and leaves the hackers’ victims to twist in the wind. Rebekah Brooks treats a Commons select committee with undisguised contempt, and is open about bribing officers for information feeds. Meanwhile, politicos hum and buzz but do nothing. Five years ago, the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas noted ‘evidence of systematic breaches in personal privacy that amount to an unlawful trade in confidential personal information’. They can’t say they didn’t know.

Bribery’s not the end of it. Take the case of Daniel Morgan. In 1987 Morgan was found in a pub car park in Sydenham with an axe in his head; he worked as a private detective and was reportedly investigating police corruption in south London. Brooks was interviewed about the case by the Yard in 2002, while still editor of NOTW, and told that a senior staffer on the paper, Alex Marunchak, had run a ‘surveillance’ operation on behalf of Jonathan Rees and Sid Fillery, suspected (though later cleared) of murdering Morgan. The surveillance job targeted DCS David Cook, who was on the police team investigating Morgan’s murder. Marunchak had paid £150,000 of NewsCorp’s money to Rees, another private investigator, for titbits of info, and may have harvested a rake-off himself. When the Yard asked Brooks why the NOTW was harassing Cook, she said they were following up allegations that he was having an affair (the woman in question turned out to be his wife). Needless to say, no criminal charges have been brought regarding either Morgan’s murder or the apparent stab at perverting the course of justice. Hyman Roth again: ‘I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business.’

According to Section 79 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, a director or manager may be criminally liable if illegal hacking is proved to have been committed with their ‘consent or connivance’, ‘or to be attributable to any neglect’ on their part. This could take in Rebekah Brooks or indeed members of NewsCorp’s ruling dynasty, whose durability rivals that of the Assads of Damascus and the Kims of Pyongyang. Will it lead to prosecutions? Answers, in a brown envelope, to Met HQ.


  • 8 July 2011 at 4:16pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Having publicly shafted his erstwhile friends of convenience — Brooks and Coulson — this morning, Cameron, I think, has indicated that he will not stand in the way of full exposure of their actions. He's a former media PR man and knows which way the wind is blowing — NI, and possibly the entire Murdoch empire, is now a toxic brand. Not only does he wish to avoid the taint of direct contact, but won't stand downwind of them either. Plus, I suspect that he has seen that recent events offer an unrepeatable opportunity to cut Murdoch and his power over UK national politics down to manageable size. Owning up to having been charitably naive about Coulson's credibility is a small prize to pay for such a prize.

  • 13 July 2011 at 8:48am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    This one will run and run. Spare a thought, though, for Rupert Murdoch, watching Kane-like as his empire crumbles. The share value for NI must have dropped quite a lot since Sunday. He must be down to his last Billion, poor chap. Press and politicians have always had a cosy relationship in the UK. Remember Blair and Murdoch? Remember the Profumo scandal, when only Private Eye's tenacity brought the whole shabby story out into the open because the rest of the press didn't dare touch it? One thing is clear - Cameron ought to go but won't.