by Tom Watson
Andy Coulson will resign as Downing Street communications director within the next few weeks. When the moment comes, his powerful but embarrassed friends will breathe a sigh of relief. They want it to be the end of the phone hacking scandal. It is just the beginning.
For, as any investigative journalist will tell you, it’s always the cover up that sinks you. Senior executives have been clinging onto the line that “Clive Goodman was a rogue reporter” like it was a life belt on the Titanic. The unanswered questions are pouring in.
There is a police investigation and at least three court cases. There are two Parliamentary enquiries on top of a damning report by the media select committee. There are whistleblowers. Insiders are breaking ranks, beginning to talk. Shareholders are asking questions. Coulson may be on his way, but the story won’t go away, despite hardly being reported in some of the best-selling newspapers.
There will be adverse criticism of the Prime Minister’s judgement, but, frankly, that’s a side show. In the degenerate world of Westminster politics, Coulson was a “success”. He got Cameron into number 10. He served his master well. Now it’s over, a lucrative, if unrewarding, career in PR awaits him, whatever the various enquiries hold for him in the short term.
Even if the BBC’s most senior political reporter, Nick Robinson, breaks his duck and reports on the issue, Coulson’s departure will not permanently damage the PM. He’ll take some heat and hire the next spinner with a limited shelf life.
Yet the story has only just begun for phone hacking. Think about it for a little while. For nearly a decade, the news rooms of nearly every national newspaper routinely broke the law. Two private investigators and one “rogue” reporter took the rap for an entire industry. Can that hold? That’s up to politicians and the police. So the proprietors and the editors and the executives who let it happen might just get away with it.
If frontline journalists who were/are involved in phone hacking are the only people to carry the can for industrial scale criminal wrong doing, then it will be a shameful indictment on the British newspaper industry. The scale of wrongdoing is so great that we should seriously consider an amnesty for whistleblowers in order to get to the facts.
Only then can we address the real issue at the heart of the phone hacking – the complete failure of self-regulation by the unaccountable executives and proprietors who own and run newspapers.
Who has to answer questions?
The attorney general:
I asked him whether the director of public prosecutions (DPP) was informed that the metropolitan police service (MPS) held transcribed voicemail messages as part of its telephone hacking and blagging investigation.
It is a key question which goes to the heart of the original investigation by the metropolitan police.
Last week, on the day of the royal wedding announcement he replied (late) with the following answer:
“two people were prosecuted for offences of conspiracy to intercept communications and related offences. The DPP at the time, Sir Ken McDonald QC, now Lord MacDonald of River Glavern, and the reviewing lawyer are no longer in post, and no information is contained in the prosecution file on this specific issue. It is not therefore possible to ascertain whether the DPP was informed that the metropolitan police service held transcribed voicemail messages as part of its investigation into telephone hacking”.
The only way that this answer can be interpreted is that the attorney general has not bothered to satisfy himself that the original enquiry was properly investigated. His obfuscatory reply strongly suggests that the MPS might not have passed on key evidence to the director of public prosecutions that could have led to further prosecutions in 2006.
The metropolitan police:
Given the serious questions raised over the previous investigation into phone hacking back in 2006 and the current level of dissatisfaction from individuals who are only just discovering that they were the victims of criminal wrong doing, why does the MPS not request that another police force take over the running of current enquiries? Victims should certainly do so.
The information commissioner:
Is it not time to release the names of the journalists involved in the 2004 investigation into Steve Whittamore? Whittamore had kept meticulous files since 1996. His files showed that journalists – including the current chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks – requested phone blags. The ICO produced an excel spreadsheet of all transactions undertaken by Whittamore from 2000-2004.
It is time that this was released, as well as the paper ledgers produced between 1996 and 2000.
Tony Blair, David Cameron, George Osborne and Gordon Brown:
Surely it is time for them formally to request that the Metropolitan police examines the Mulcaire evidence file to establish whether their names appear on it.
If it is confirmed that a national newspaper had allowed current or future prime ministers and chancellors to be targeted in such a way, the public outrage may finally force the industry to take notice.
These are just a flavour of the questions that should be answered. There are many more. Like I said, Coulson’s departure is just the beginning.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.