The PCC give themselves a black eye

Published November 2009

The Guardian

November 9 2009

(Following publication of the Press Complaints Commission inquiry into phone-hacking at the News of the World)

If you write news stories, you know sometimes they’ll be attacked. But

this is the weirdest attack I’ve experienced in 33 years of writing: the

Press Complaints Commission has thrown plenty of punches from different directions but not one single one has hit the target. In spite of all the angry language, there is not a single factual claim in our story about the News of the World that has been dislodged by anything in the PCC report.

They set out to answer only two questions. The first amounts to a bizarre

exercise in shadow boxing, attacking a version of the Guardian story that

does not exist. “Have journalists carried on hacking phone messages since

the PCC issued new guidelines in 2007?” they ask. They try very hard to

make out that the Guardian made a claim to this effect and spend pages

insisting that this is not true. Maybe they are right. Maybe they are not.

We don’t know: we never addressed the subject. It just isn’t in our story

at all.

After this frantic pounding of a shadow on the wall, they raise a second question which does deal with our story: did the News of the World

mislead the Press Complaints Commission during its first inquiry into

phone-hacking, back in 2007? Here the problem is that they announce a

knock-out blow – because they have appointed themselves as referee and

granted themselves the right to ignore evidence including that which they

themselves have collected.

The News of the World originally claimed that its royal reporter, Clive

Goodman, was the only one of their journalists involved in phone hacking.

However, we produced an email containing the transcript of more than 30

voicemail messages which had been intercepted from the mobile phones of two victims. This email was written by a News of the World reporter for

the attention of Neville Thurlbeck, a senior journalist on the News of the

World. We said this showed that Clive Goodman was not the only News of the World journalist involved and, therefore, that the News of the World,

albeit in good faith, had failed to tell the PCC the truth.

In its new report, the PCC not only fail to demolish that claim but quote

a statement from the current editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler: “Our internal inquiries have found no evidence of involvement by News of the World staff other than Clive Goodman in phone message interception beyond the email transcript which has since been revealed in the Guardian report.”

And yet, acting as their own referee, the PCC ignore this admission and

ignore the clear contents of that email and conclude that they were not

misled, because “while people may speculate about the email referencing

‘Neville’… the PCC can only deal with the facts that are available

rather than make assumptions.” And that’s the extent of their questions.

While the PCC are boxing away in response to the two questions

which they have chosen to answer, they ignore much more important ones. For example, they fail to address the point which our story does raise about the failure of the inquiry which the PCC ran in 2007, a failure

which was bound to occur since they decided not to interview a single

executive or journalist from the News of the World other than the incoming editor, Colin Myler, who necessarily could not tell them what had been happening before he arrived. Now they have chosen not to investigate the failure of their inquiry and, therefore, not to address the questions which it raises about their independence.

However, they do misrepresent it. In 2007, the then chairman of the PCC,

Sir Christopher Meyer, said he would investigate “the entire newspaper and magazine industry of the UK to establish what is their practice”. But they didn’t do that. Skipping round that in their new report, they now claim that ‘it was not the commission’s intention – nor was it within our remit – to try to duplicate the police investigation by trying to establish whether there had been other transgressions.’

They discuss an allegation by Adam Price MP, a member of the media select committee, that a story about Prince Harry and Prince William must have been obtained by hacking the princes’ phones. They quote Colin Mylers’ denial – and yet they don’t record the fact that, in evidence to that select committee, the police revealed that they had found evidence of the News of the World’s private investigator hacking the voicemail messages of both princes, something which had never been revealed before.

They refer to a second document produced by the Guardian, a contract

signed by a News of the World editor offering a £7,000 payment to the

private investigator Glenn Mulcaire if he delivered a story about the

chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, Gordon

Taylor, whose voicemail we know was being hacked. And yet the PCC accept without criticism the News of the World’s claim that they can’t discuss this with the PCC because they have a confidentiality agreement with Gordon Taylor.

They make an issue of the fact that the Guardian would not disclose the

identities of the two people who had had access to Scotland Yard’s

original inquiry, both of whom estimated that thousands of people had had their phones hacked by the News of the World. And yet they give no weight to the evidence taken by the select committee naming a Scotland Yard detective who had worked on the inquiry as estimating that there were up to six thousand people whose phones had been hacked or whose voicemail had been intercepted. Nor do they mention the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police not to investigate all the potential victims but to work only on a small, representative sample.

They fail to say anything about the astonishing memorandum submitted by Scotland Yard to the select committee, revealing that they had approached not only members of the royal household but also members of the military, the police and the government to warn them that they believed the News of the World’s investigator had attempted to intercept their voicemail messages; that they had alerted the security services to investigate this; that they also had passed more material about other potential victims to mobile phone companies for them to investigate; and that, in addition, they were reviewing all of the material in their possession in order to contact yet more suspected victims.

They make no comment on the wall of secrecy which the News of the World has erected around its activities – the payment of more than £1 million to keep secret three cases in which they were sued for hacking voice messages; the payment of tens of thousands of pounds to Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire in settlements with confidentiality clauses; the threat to injunct Gordon Taylor’s solicitor to stop him representing other clients. Nor do they comment on the News of the World’s failure to warn the PCC, the select committee and the public that the Gordon Taylor case had revealed that their original version of events was misleading.

But the fight is not over yet. As a result of the Guardian’s stories, we now know that the hacking involved more victims and more journalists than the News of the World and the PCC originally claimed. Scotland Yard is still holding a vast collection of paperwork which it seized from Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman.  Lawyers for various public figures are now following Gordon Taylor in asking for access to anything which refers to their clients. The PCC may yet discover that the only real victim of their attack is their own credibility.

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