I should have been doing the garden, or making jam, but finding the Press Standards committee questioning the News of the World on Phone tapping was irresistible. The full hearing of the committee can be viewed here http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=4634
Firstly I saw the in- house legal advisor, Tom Crone. His opening statement was an attack on one member of the committee, with whom the paper is in legal dispute. This was repeated later with another member. Just the idea of this was compulsive. This paper really has to have the services of someone who could decide “Is this the right side of legality?” “Will we get sued?” I needed to see him. I really needed to know what kind of a man would want to do that kind of job. What did he stand for?
The Committee of MPs wanted to know how the paper got its stories, who would know what individual journalists were up to, what incentives were used. An MP asked. “Did you ever suspect that the stories you were being shown could have been acquired by subterfuge”. The answer that came was “subterfuge is not illegal”. It is difficult to communicate across a gulf that wide. The question implied a moral framework – an assumption that people will choose to make a distinction between what is right and what is wrong. The answer simply does not recognise that concept.
The MPs really wanted to know if it was possible that an editor or sub-editor could have been ignorant of the very sizeable cheques that had been paid out on a regular basis to the person who carried out the phone tapping. The Guardian felt this would have been pretty well inconceivable. Andy Coulson, the editor who resigned from the News of the World because of the phone tapping, and who is now David Cameron’s head of communications, said that he did not “micro-manage”. Large cheques were paid out routinely. The News of the World bought stories and pictures all the time. Cheques of £100,000 were not at all unusual. The carefully worded response was, “I see no evidence that anything has been done illegally”.
Paul Farrelly MP asked a question about a figure on an invoice for a £70 payment for someone who had provided an ex-directory phone number. The News of the world team looked bemused. This kind of casual intrusion is so routine that they do not even see it. Why would anyone ask about such tiny figures for such a common place action.
Andy Coulson came across well. Nicely presented, modest, humorous, incisive; a loyal man who tries to do a good job, and makes disarming admissions that he sometimes gets it wrong. We heard about things that Andy Coulson was unaware of. He had not known about the illegal activities at the heart of the case, he did not know the key individuals, he had not seen particular stories, and he was quite unaware of anyone else who might have been involved in anything illegal.
Andy Coulson was at pains to say that he took good care his journalists knew all about the Press complaints commission and understood the boundaries. Listening to the paper’s legal advisor it seemed to me that they understood these boundaries very exactly indeed. When the boundaries were crossed and the aggrieved person fought back the paper routinely settled promptly and generously out of court, drawing up privacy statements binding both parties so that no one heard any more about the matter.
The paper also uses loose structures that make it very easy for its executives to be unaware of the way in which the stories are gathered. Many of the stories do not come from the in-house journalists at all. Free lance journalists or sources simply know what the paper would like, and come up with the goods for a fee.
No one, so far as I remember mentioned anything about the accuracy of stories during the course of the session. It hardly seemed relevant.
I can’t say that I normally give much thought to the News of the World. I have never bought a copy, and can’t see any reason why I should. This is a parallel universe.
The only reason why it interests me now is the idea that someone who has learned his trade in this sort of world is running the communications operation for the Conservatives. In The News of the World it is the story that matters. They need bold headlines to grab the attention, stories to appeal to strong emotions. Accuracy is always of secondary importance.
In the world of RSS feeds and Twitter it is not hard at all for someone who understands the media very well to cook up a storm. News is instant, often superficial, and frequently inaccurate. If we think back over the last couple of years, to the big highly emotive stories that have blown up out of nowhere, worked to the electoral advantage of the Conservatives and suddenly gone quiet, I think we need to begin asking serious questions about the way the media is being manipulated and who is pulling the strings.
These skills may have their place in running a paper which people accept is more about entertainment than serious content. It is in no one’s interests when this kind of skill is being used to influence the outcome of elections.