Why are we wasting time and police resources on phone hacking?

by Dan Hodges

Westminster is gripped by a strange madness. Last week it was announced that the economy is teetering on the brink of the precipice, a swathe of cuts are set to scythe through every community in the land and that the 350th British life had lain down for its country in Afghanistan.

But what is dominating our political discourse? Phone-hacking. The hunt to uncover which journalists eavesdropped on the mobile messages of which politicians and minor celebrities. This is now the burning issue of our age.

We are witnessing the car crash of the British establishment. Our MPs are piling into the media. The media are piling into the police. The police are piling into everyone. All the while the public are gliding slowly by watching, with incomprehension, the unfolding spectacle.

On the surface, the hacking controversy raises important issues. Laws have been broken. The privacy of public figures invaded. There are questions over the integrity of senior police officers.

These matters should not be taken lightly. But nor should they be whipped into a frenzy of rumour, speculation and accusation.

At the heart of this issue lies an age old conflict. The battle between politicians, who see journalists as vandals, attempting the destroy their noble efforts to build a good and just society, and the journalists, who see politicians as members of private members club, intent on running it at the public expense, far from prying eyes. To an extent both are right, and both are wrong.

Among Labour politicians, this conflict is heightened by a special sense of injustice. They still bear the  scars of the 1992 general election campaign, when the weight of a hostile media, the Murdoch media empire in particular, was blamed for the party’s defeat. From that point on, the press was a tiger which had to be tamed or killed.

In 1997 I was with a group of fellow political advisors in a bar when one of Tony Blair’s team took a call. With joy in his eyes he threw his mobile into the air and shouted, “the Sun’s backing Labour”. Mayhem ensued. The tiger had indeed been tamed.

For the next decade, Labour’s successful relationship with the media formed a central plank of the New Labour “project”. It was a source of pride that we had been able to turn the hostile press tide in our favour. It was also, in truth, a source of arrogance. We boasted among ourselves about the number of stories we’d placed, the number of Tory stories we’d got “spiked”, and the number of “hits” and “scalps” we’d secured.

Tales about the prowess of the New Labour media machine were legend. Alastair Campbell was viewed as a cross between George Best, Butch Cassidy and Clark Gable. What inspired particular awe was the way he managed to secure his most favourable coverage in papers outside the traditional Labour stable.

One especially memorable tale concerned the senior Daily Mirror journalist who asked Campbell if he could secure a short article from Bill Clinton on the Northern Ireland peace process, in advance of Clinton’s imminent state visit. “OK”, replied the spin doctor, “but you’ll have to write it yourself. Then we’ll get Clinton to sign it off”. The hack duly obliged, and sent the copy through. The day later he was amazed to open the Sun to find the article he had written, in Clinton’s name, splashed across the pages of his tabloid rival. Apoplectic, he phoned Campbell for an explanation. “I did it for peace”, came the reply.

The hard truth, and it’s not a popular truth within the Labour movement, is that we once danced with the very journalists we now damn. And we relished every moment.

From the moment Britain crashed out of the ERM, to the point at which Gordon Brown decided to  stop and have a quick chat with that nice Mrs Duffy, Labour enjoyed a very good press. That’s not to excuse the actions of those journalists who have been found guilty of illegality. A good professional relationship with a politician is not an invitation to hack into their mobile. But we can’t ignore that the mouth we now accuse of biting us was one that we used to feed. Nor did we complain too loudly when it was sinking its teeth into our opponents.

There is an ongoing police investigation into these issues, and it must be allowed to run its course. But  it seems bizarre that the country’s penal policy now appears to involve releasing suspected terrorists whilst locking up journalists and members of Parliament. Similarly, in  the week when it was announced that the number of police officers has fallen by 2,500, with additional cuts to come, is it really appropriate to have the acting deputy commissioner of the metropolitan police investigating whether someone has been bugging Lesley Ash?

No one should be above the law, not least past or serving police officers. But we have to recapture some semblance of perspective. If, for example, Gordon Brown had his phone hacked while prime minister or chancellor that would be a very serious matter with potential national security implications. But frankly, if a part-time cast member of the latest  daytime soap had their messages listened to by a dodgy private investigator, just how much police time and public resources should be deployed on apprehending the culprit? Dialling 999 to declare “someone’s been listening to my mobile messages” isn’t all that far removed from “someone’s just nicked my snowman”.

And there is one other serious implication. There is a perception that phone-hacking is the preserve of the grubby tabloids. It isn’t. A couple of months ago I was talking to a friend who works for an internationally respected Sunday broadsheet. “We’ve had to fold three serious investigations because of the phone-hacking row”, he said, “Our lawyers just won’t let us do anything that involves undercover recording. We don’t know where the legal line is anymore”. Inconvenient thought it may be to some, there are occasions when listening to the private conversations of the rich and powerful is legitimate. Just ask Andy Gray and Richard Keys.

Phone hacking is no longer a scandal. Or even an investigation. It has become a war. An all out war between some of the most powerful institutions in the country.

And there will be casualties. The press, our police and our politicians amongst them.

Careers will be ruined. It is highly likely that some people will end up in jail.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the chill economic wind will bite. The cuts will hit home. In a foreign field, another hero will fall.

And the public will drive on. Watching first with bemusement, but then a growing anger, as the establishment turns in upon itself.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to “Why are we wasting time and police resources on phone hacking?”

  1. paul barker says:

    So, what are you trying to cover up ?

  2. Dan Hodges says:

    …listen to my answerphone messages and you’ll find out…

  3. “No one should be above the law, not least past or serving police officers. But…”

    I’m afraid you lost any credibility with this sentence.

    In fact, this whole article is wrong. It’s a huge scandal, but phone hacking is hardly taking over the news bulletins. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most news outlets have been a bit preoccupied with events in Egypt and Tunisia recently to be talking about the phone hacking.

  4. Dan Hodges says:

    E.P. Thompson,

    “…but we have to recapture some sense of perspective”. If calling for perspective destroys my credibility, fair enough.

    And MPs, journalists and senior officers in the Met are spending a lot more time worrying about phone-hacking than they are events in Egypt. Trust me.


  5. john p Ried says:

    I can here old Laobur shreiking already, How dare the sun not be as anti the Police as the Guardian, afterall, the daily Mail named Stephen Lawrence alleged killers,

    but the police shouldn’t have locked edward woolard for throwing htat fire extuingisher as the police should only nick right wing people as left wing ones are acting in lef defence,

Leave a Reply