I haven't blogged much about the newspaper bugging row since it broke, because, well, I just couldn't quite see what was new that we didn't know before. We knew, for instance that it wasn't just the News of the World which was at it. Indeed, the Mail Group was the biggest miscreant - 58 journalists used blaggers on 952 occasions. But the Sunday Times, Observer, Telegraph and many others also used the services of the bugging agency. We also knew that celebrities were involved. We also knew that Andy Coulson had taken the rap for the antics of his royal reporter, Clive Goodman, even though he hadn't known about what he had been up to.
So when I read Stephen Glover's column in yesterday's Independent, I was relieved to see it wasn't just me who was wondering what was new. To be fair, the payment by the NOTW to Gordon Taylor was a new angle, but was this really something which was such a revelation that it deserved to be at the top of the news agenda for so long? My guess is that without the calls for Andy Coulson's head (despite the fact he had already sacrificed his head in 2006) it wouldn't have got that much traction.
But make no mistake, whatever Andy Coulson knew or didn't know, the fact that national newspapers seem to think they can intercept private voicemail messages is something we should all be concerned about - and they should be held to account. Indeed, the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee is in session this morning to try to get to the bottom of it.
In the new updated edition of his book DIRTY POLITICS, DIRTY TIMES Michael Ashcroft reveals in colourful detail the lengths the Sunday Times went to to blag information from the Inland Revenue on his tax affairs. The chapter is too long to print here, but I'd encourage you to have a look at it, as it outlines in gory detail what a newspaper is prepared to do - outside the law - to gain private information. He makes a powerful case against Sunday Times journalist Nick Rufford. You can read the chapter HERE. Scroll forward to page 130 on the PDF or page 226 of the text. It's only seven pages, but quite shocking. Perhaps the Select Committee should call Lord Ashcroft to give evidence as someone who has been on the receiving end of a 'blagger'.
Ashcroft employed a team of lawyers to get to the bottom of what happened. He was keen to take legal action against the Sunday Times. Of course, with his resources he could comtemplate such a thing. So could Gordon Taylor of the PFA. So can Max Clifford. So can John Prescott, and most of the other celebrities named.
But imagine if this happened to you. Imagine if a 'blagger' got hold of your own details. Imagine if they accessed your voicemail and used it in some nefarious way. How would you gain redress? The truth is, of course, that legally it would be very difficult because our legal system in this area is stacked in favour of those with the resources to use it. It was ever thus, I suppose.
Clearly, prosecuting authorities can only bring a case when they have enough evidence to do so. The Met and the CPS clearly didn't feel at the time that they had enough evidence to prosecute anyone other than Clive Goodman. Yet we know that most national newspapers were involved in blagging to one degree or another, and we also know that many of their journalists were involved. The difficulty for the prosecuting authorities is presumably linking individual journalists to individual examples of illegal blagging. But it is in the public interest that the legal system, and parliamentary system is used to hold those responsible to account.
You can buy the new updated edition of Michael Ashcroft's book HERE.