The British media’s phone hacking blind spot

Bank holiday weekend brought more phone hacking revelations from the Guardian’s Nick Davies, with new accusations about Scotland Yard’s handling of the investigation into phone hacking at News of the World in 2006. It also brought a strongly-argued piece questioning Andy Coulson’s position as Tory communications chief, by Daily Mail political columnist Peter Oborne, writing in the Observer.

Firstly, what’s new in Davies’ report? Well, we learn that “that the officer in charge of the inquiry, assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, subsequently left the police to work for News International as a columnist.”

According to Hayman’s website, he has “a regular commentary slot writing exclusively for The Times newspaper.”

We are told by Davies that the Crown Prosecution paperwork:

“reveals that police and prosecutors adopted a deliberate strategy to ringfence the evidence which they presented in court in order to suppress the names of particularly prominent victims, including members of the royal family. The existence of this strategy has been omitted from all public statements, including evidence made to the House of Commons media select committee.”

We learn that the News of the World phone hacker, Glenn Mulcaire, had gathered over 4,000 names and just under 3,000 phone numbers of potential victims, according to the CPS docs:

In a further blow to the official version of events, the Guardian has discovered that although police and prosecutors named only eight victims in court, material seized by police from Mulcaire and the paper’s royal reporter, Clive Goodman, contained 4,332 names or partial names of people in whom the two men had an interest, 2,978 numbers or partial numbers for mobile phones and 30 audio tapes which appear to contain an unspecified number of recordings of voicemail messages.

And does the UK’s media care? Nope.

“No surprise”, Charlie Whelan comments via Twitter, as an add-on to MP Tom Watson’s tweet, “Amazed that no other newspaper has picked up on the scale of this phone hacking scandal”.

(btw, Tom Watson’s tweet has had a notable click through and retweet response)

No surprise indeed, given the media’s coverage to date. Aside from the initial excitement in July 2009, particularly by the BBC, there has been very poor coverage of the entire affair.

I’ve been covering the Guardian’s revelations since last year and watched the CMS select committee hearings etc. While I expected the media response to be muted, I have been staggered at the effectiveness of the blackout. The line of the Sun’s reportage following publication of the CMS report echoed the official News International press release and tried to pass off the committee’s findings as a Labour smear job.

Yes, of course, this is a political issue, with each new story reminding us of the questions that the Tory party’s director of communications and former NOTW editor, Andy Coulson, needs to answer. And, of course, Labour MPs will flag that up.

But that aspect doesn’t make this a non-story, in fact it makes it even more important. There’s hard evidence here that we haven’t had explained. Davies’ findings should be a much bigger national story than they are.

I’ll finish with Oborne’s excellent piece in the Observer. On the blind spot, he says:

Davies’s work, however, has gained no traction at all in the rest of Fleet Street, which operates under a system of omerta so strict that it would secure a nod of approbation from the heads of the big New York crime families.

Coulson should not be allowed near Downing Street, he remarks:

It is no exaggeration to state that under the editorship of Coulson the News of the World was running what was effectively a large private intelligence service, using some of the same highly intrusive techniques as MI5. This illegal surveillance was targeted at the most famous and most powerful men and women in Britain, including footballers, politicians, members of the government, police and military. The budget stretched to hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, probably more. As deputy editor, and then editor, Coulson was routinely commissioning and editing stories to which these investigators had contributed vital information.

It’s just a shame that Oborne didn’t argue this as strongly in his Mail slot. For that publication, he writes:

The answer is that the signals are mixed. I judge that Cameron is a relatively honest politician, but there are grave doubts about the integrity of some of the men who surround him, above all his chief media adviser and the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who had to resign after his paper was found to have hacked into royal mobile phones.

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