Hard News by Russell Brown


A nation bullied

The drumbeat on Twitter this morning suggested that something notable was unfolding, live, on BBC's Newsnight's coverage of the growing sprawl of events around the the News Corporation crisis. In particular, Steve Coogan, one of the many well-known people whose voicemail was targeted by News of the World investigators, was having his say.

The Newsnight video has been placed on YouTube with all the alacrity and precision we would expect of British mediaphiles at a time like this and, yes, it is spectacular:

Coogan is authentically furious, and the target of his ire, former News of the World features editor Paul McMullen, who seems incapable of staying away from the television cameras this week, holds up his end by insisting that he and his colleagues were entitled to breach the privacy of celebrities (or anyone else), and to break the law in doing so -- and that to suggest otherwise is to attack the very idea of a free press.

It is true that the News of the World has sometimes used subterfuge to pursue matters of genuine public interest: Sarah Ferguson's eagerness to sell access to her husband the Prince for the proper fee was properly exposed. It is true that Rupert Murdoch himself is a newspaperman in a world of bean-counters, and that he has supported some of his mastheads beyond the dictates of the bottom line. He has taken huge risks and been duly rewarded.

But what Britain now seems suddenly to be recovering from is a form of bullying sustained over decades. Senior police officers have admitted that, even if it meant overlooking corruption in their own ranks, they have been afraid of taking on Fleet Street for fear of the backlash. Members of the British Parliament suddenly feel emboldened to criticise News International and the Murdoch family. It is astonishing to think that for so long they had actually been cowed into silence by that company.

(Quick question: if UK Labour has brave, articulate MPs like Tom Watson, who has been so influential in driving the News of the World story, how did it come to elect an upper middle class shop dummy like Ed Milliband as its leader? Just wondering.)

It seems evident that the striking move of closing down the News of the World will not only fail to bring and end to the Murdochs' troubles, it will backfire. Rebekah Brooks will be charged and James Murdoch seems likely to face charges on both sides of the Atlantic. The wholesale destruction of evidence must be dealt with in the strongest terms. David Cameron will have to find a way of denying Rupert Murdoch his BSkyB takeover.

And the wide freedoms enjoyed by all British newspapers under the feeble Press Complaints Commission will undoubtedly be curtailed in some way. We shouldn't be under any illusions about that. But as Coogan suggested on Newsnight, there also also a difference between holding power to account and the mere selling of newspapers. Newspaper editors everywhere will do well to reflect on that.

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