This is a transcript of a piece I recorded for The Now Show on Thursday 7th July, the day it was announced the News of the World was closing. For the full show, go here. This transcript includes material which was recorded but not broadcast, for reasons of time.
1) It's not News International itself that is seeking to own BSkyB, rather its parent company News Corporation.
2) The government has to decide whether the takeover threatens media plurality; Ofcom alone will judge whether News Corps are 'fit and proper persons'.
It seems more honest to put these corrections here rather than changing the text of the piece. I regret the errors, but don't believe either materially affect the argument I'm making.
JOHN So. Does anyone remember the News of the World? No? It was a newspaper that was around when I was a kid, and also an adult. Tabloid, came out on a Sunday, a bit like the Sun on Sunday, but obviously totally different and separate and not the same at all. Anyway, I seem to remember it had to close in the end, after some scandal about hacking a murdered schoolgirl’s phone. And it was a News International paper, I think, so it’s a good job it’s not around this week, when the Government and Ofcom have to decide if News International are ‘fit and proper persons’ to own BSkyB! That would be awful for them! But it’s not, it’s closed and over and done with and finished and shut and in the past and not relevant to anything any more. Which is lucky.
Now, I’m aware, as I start this piece, of something Tom Lehrer once said about protest song singers: that it takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee house and come out in favour of the things everyone else is against, like peace and love and brotherhood and so on. I feel a bit like that now; here I am on Radio Four to register my controversial view that hacking and / or deleting messages from the phones of murder victims, terrorism survivors or dead soldiers is... a bit off. I mean, that is very much my opinion, but I fear I might be preaching to the choir. And what a choir it is! From Ed Miliband...
JOHN …David Cameron…
JOHN ...Rebekah Brooks...
JOHN ...to Rupert Murdoch
JOHN ...it seemed this week as if no-one had a good word to say for the practice of eavesdropping on murder victims. Honestly, we’re all so united in hating it, it’s surprising really it ever happened. No-one seems in favour, not even Rebekah Brooks, whom I assume as editor of the paper that paid for it, must have…? No! No, apparently I’m wrong. She’s totally unconnected with it, and didn’t know, and didn’t see, and no-one told her, and she was on holiday, and anyway she had a different name then so it doesn’t count. In fact, she went to far as to say to her employees:
BROOKS I hope that you all realise it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations.’
JOHN So, there you go - it is inconceivable. It actually cannot be conceived. The imagination, faced with the challenge of inventing some kind of madcap fictional world in which Rebekah Brooks knew where a story in the paper she edited came from, just gives up. It’s like trying to imagine an undiscovered colour or five dimensional space. We can demonstrate this now, actually. Try, just as a thought experiment, try to conceive that Rebekah Brooks, as her former employee Paul McMullan maintains, knew full well that Glenn Mulcaire was illegally hacking phones. [PAUSE] Any luck? No, me neither. Interesting, by the way, that ‘I hope you realise it is inconceivable that I knew…’ is not quite the same, legally, as ‘I didn’t know’. And of course that’s not all - it’s also being alleged that News International have in the past paid the police for information. Presumably Rebekah Brooks thinks this is inconceivable as well. Certainly, when asked about it by Chris Bryant MP in 2003, she was less then candid. This is what she said:
BROOKS We have paid the police for information in the past.
JOHN Oh, I’m sorry, I meant she was totally candid. She told the government select committee that that illegal act is what she did. Just to remind you, the government have to decide if News International are fit and proper persons to own BSkyB. Now, to be fair, Andy Coulson was also there, and he leapt in to clarify:
COULSON We operate within the code and within the law.
JOHN He said. Oh, within the law? Phew! That’s a relief! But Chris Bryant is a bit slow, and said:
BRYANT It’s illegal for police officers to receive payments.
JOHN To which Coulson replied:
COULSON No no no, we don’t- As I said, within the law.
JOHN Yes, he said it was within the law! Weren’t you listening, Chris Bryant? It can’t be illegal if it was done within the law, by definition. You’re thinking of those illegal police bribes everyone else does, this was a police bribe within the law. They’re fine! Out of interest, though, I wonder which law it was done within? Because obviously it wasn’t done within the hundred year old law against making or accepting a payment to a police officer for information collected in the course of duty. It must be within some other law, maybe that one about abating a smoky chimney.
Anyway, something, the whole of the choir agree, was deeply wrong at the News of the World - you remember, the ancient and historical paper which used to exist once, but doesn’t now, so that’s fine - under the editorship of Rebekah Wade. And who better to investigate it than the chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks? No-one. No-one knows Rebekah Wade better than Rebekah Brooks. They go way back. In the words of comedy henchman Simon Greenberg, when Jon Snow asked how she could investigate herself:
GREENBERG When we’ve got the facts, we’ll investigate how that can be possible.
JOHN It’s as simple as that. She’ll investigate, get the facts, and when she’s got the facts, she can investigate how it’s possible for her to have investigated them. I mean, it certainly saves on manpower. I just worry she’s working too hard, poor girl. Because she’s going to have to ask herself some tough questions, really rake herself over the coals. Naturally, at first she’ll try to evade herself, but she knows all her tricks, and once she sees she means business, she’ll crack, and before long she’ll tell her everything she knows about what she did, and she’ll listen very carefully, and write it all down in a little book.
The only problem is, there surely can’t be anything to discover, because after all News International looked into it two years ago when the first Guardian reports came out, and they told the PCC quite clearly that these were the actions of one rogue reporter, and there was no evidence anyone else at the News of the World was involved in phone hacking. (By the way, the government have to decide if News International are fit and proper persons to run BSkyB.) And if there’s no evidence, there’s no evidence. I mean, where else could they look? Well, comedy henchman Greenberg had an answer to that too, this time on the Today Programme, where he was at pains to stress that News International was:
GREENBERG ‘in a fully co-operative mode with the police, as we have been since January.’
JOHN Is it me, or doesn’t that slightly raises the question of what sort of mode they were in before January? Although, to be fair, it is beginning to sound like their relationship with the police has for some time been very co-operative… almost to a fault. Anyway, Mr Greenberg has had a bright idea where to look for this evidence which News International were adamant in 2009 did not exist. He said:
GREENBERG ‘The Milly Dowler information, that’s something we weren’t aware of, we obviously want to see what information we might have in our archives’
JOHN Oh, the archives! Of course! The place where we put the records of stuff that happened in the past! Now you mention it, that’s the very place to look! The dusty old News International archives, [ANCIENT ARCHIVIST VOICE] wherein we repose the huge leather-bound volumes of sent emails, which can in no way [VOICE OUT] be searched electronically for the word ‘Dowler’ or ‘hack into the murdered girl’s phone’, but must instead [VOICE BACK IN] be searched very very slowly by the senior archivist with his trusty magnifying glass.
And they’d better do a good job, because if they don’t, they will face the wrath of the mighty Press Complaints Commission, which has already done so much to prevent this situation, and which is now prepared to savage them as only a voluntary self-regulating body with no legal powers or sanctions can. Their chairman, Lady Buscombe, has been all over the place this week, defending the PCC from charges that they have basically the same powers and influence as Father Ted and Dougal outside that cinema.
TED Down with this sort of thing!
DOUGAL Careful now!
JOHN When Andrew Neill asked her to name ‘one useful thing’ she’d done since the scandal broke, she replied that she had ‘demanded to see all the proprietors’. Which ought to do the trick nicely, if, as I assume, the proprietors all share a debilitating phobia of seeing Lady Buscombe. Though of course if they do… they can just refuse to see her. Whereas Ofcom, the statuary regulator that controls broadcast media, can impose heavy fines, or even refuse to grant a licence to a broadcaster if it feels they are not fit and proper persons to have one. Something that’s being decided right now, as it happens, about News International, as I may have said.
But anyway, isn’t it all academic now? The News of the World has gone! We won! They made the supreme sacrifice and killed it off. Yeah, they have. In other, unrelated news, here’s what Rebekah Brooks said on the 28th June this year, announcing the appointment of Richard Caseby in the new role of managing editor of the Sun and the News of the World.
BROOKS We will take a comprehensive look at where there is common ground across our titles. Where there is common ground we will find ways of implementing efficiencies and, where appropriate, we will find ways of introducing seven day working.
JOHN ‘Seven day working’. Now, a cynic might read that as evidence News International were already planning to merge the papers at least a fortnight before this happened, and this announcement is just disguising a pre-made decision as sack-cloth and ashes, whilst clearing the way for the launch of a Sun on Sunday with no baggage, in which all the advertisers they’ve lost this week can cheerfully re-advertise with clean hands. Not to say that this isn’t a huge deal, with the loss of hundreds of jobs - though of course largely the jobs of people who had nothing to do with phone-hacking, rather than the job of, say, to pick an example at random, Rebekah Brooks; who also had nothing to do with it, as we’ve established, but perhaps in a slightly more pointed way than some. What it certainly doesn’t prove is that News International are very very sorry. What it proves is that they really, really want BSkyB.
JOHN So, there we are, I’ve stood in front of a Radio Four audience and told them hacking into the phones of murdered children isn’t very nice, and nor is Rebekah Brooks, which are two things you all thought already. What was the point of that? Well, actually, this time, I think there is a point. I often complain about how politicians endlessly go on about ‘listening to the people’, as if the people always speak with one voice, and as if the politicians hadn’t already made up their minds what they were going to hear.
But this time is different, and unusual, and important. The stark, undeniable wrongness of the Milly Dowler case has unified our voice, and this time they really are listening to us. Most of the people concerned, broadly speaking, didn’t and don’t want to do anything about this. Milliband didn’t want to make an enemy of Murdoch; Cameron didn’t want to have an inquiry; James Murdoch didn’t want to end the News of the World just yet, though he would have done soon. But they all changed their minds this week, because we shouted louder than they expected. And now, they’re waiting to see if that’s enough. Are we going to take the nice neat ending to the story that’s been offered to us, and go on to the next shiny thing nest week, or do they actually have to do something significant?
So this is a moment in time where I think there is actually a point to being like Tom Lehrer’s protest singer, and loudly making a fuss about what we already know we all believe, because people who didn’t think we actually cared that much are listening. So, let’s keep it up. Let’s not get distracted. Let’s not fall for the ‘The paper you hated… has gone! Behold the totally fresh and uncontaminated Sun on Sunday!’ trick. Let’s keep signing petitions, keep pestering advertisers. Let’s remember no-one has denied Milly Dowler’s messages were listened to and deleted by a man paid by News International, let’s not forget the chief exec of that company has told the House of Commons she paid the police for information; let’s chip in with our helpful opinions about whether she and it are therefore fit and proper persons to own the largest commercial broadcaster in the country. Let’s keep the pressure up, keep the chorus of disapproval going, because right now we have a rare and genuine opportunity to tell the people who influence our lives, elected or not, what sort of media ethics we’re prepared to tolerate, right now we can make a difference, right now - if we don’t lose our focus- the choir get to preach back.