Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blagging: Journalists & Newspapers Must be Held to Account

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.


Anonymous said...

what world are you living in Iain?
you said

"But it is in the public interest that the legal system, and parliamentary system is used to hold those responsible to account." That's pretty rich since MP's consider themselves above the law any way, as in the expenses scandals. Most people I know have completely lost faith in mps and parliament. We know they lie through their teeth the minute their mouths open.

Why shouldnt these high profile people, politicians entertainers etc be held to account BY ANY MEANS, LEGaL OR OTHERWISE, to show up their hypocracy? There is no other way to do it. MP's and parliament have stacked the law so they cant be found out, again as with expenses. How many times does the govmt block and try not to reply to FOI requests? Carry on hacking I say. Some one has to bring parliament to book and it aint gonna be those thieving lying politicians in it is it?

canvas said...

who on earth is even remotely surprised that the NOTW does this kind of thing? You would have to be from Mars to be shocked.

another storm in a teacup...

if you're in the public eye you have to expect the paps and the tabloids to go after you... it is what it is.

DominicJ said...

Change you voicemail pin code if you dont want people listening to your voicemails, not hard.

Jimmy said...

"Perhaps the Select Committee should call Lord Ashcroft to give evidence as someone who has been on the receiving end of a 'blagger'."

If he could only overcome his shyness.

Newmania said...

well, I just couldn't quite see what was new that we didn't know before.

Well I wish you had .I was wondering if I had invented all this comning out before and not only that but getting a good chewing when Coulson was appointed .

Anonymous said...

Yeah, who cares that the media ignore the law and possess massive unchecked power in our democracy? Big deal.

strapworld said...

I think we should all write to the Times' motoring correspondent NICK RUFFORD and challenge him to sue Lord Ashcroft!

Sadly, the facts as outlined in the book, do not surprise me.

Thomas Rossetti said...

Thank you for the link to Ashcroft's book, Iain. I've just printed it out. It's brilliant stuff so far. I can't wait to get to the Times bits later.

ChrysG said...

Just to reiterate DominicJ's advice. When you get a new mobile telephone number it is invariably set up with a system default PIN number. There are even fewer default PIN numbers in use than there are mobile phone providers in the UK. If you don't change this PIN it is obviously very easy to "blag" your way into someone's voicemail as a result. So change your PIN number to something else - you don't actually have to use that PIN when using your phone within the UK (and many overseas mobile networks), but it does make it a lot harder for hackers using emulation techniques. I'm just astounded that people don't get around to doing it.

Hipponess said...

Does it really matter? Do we, the general public, care?
No. There's nothing new in this.
This is a personal squabble between The Guardian and News International, with the BBC egging them on. Give 'em some handbags and let 'em go fight it out between them. End off.

Faustus said...

So "we knew", did we Iain, Newmania and Canvas?

You sound just like all the lobby journalists who knew all about Kennedy's drinking, for example, and who quote anonymous sources, and 'friends' of x, y and z, but choose not to share such details with the unwashed hoi polloi.

You have joined the insiders.

I suggest you purge your contempt by listing all of the other interesting and important things that you know but the stupid public don't.

Go on! Just do it!


Mark Senior said...

I generally agree with your thread except on 2 points .
You say we know that Coulson took ther rap for the antics of Clive Goodman even though he hadn't known what he had been up to . Sorry we know he denied knowing what Goodman had been up to but we don't know if he was telling the truth .
Secondly , you state that the law is stacked in favour of those with the resources to use . I think it better to say that the law is stacked against those who do not have the resources to use it - a subtle but important difference .

patrickinken said...

Thomas Rossetti is right - Ashcroft's book is a great read.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever do a thorough check on Kirkhope?

Flemincrag said...

I bought a mobile phone recently, it was my second one since 1999. This latest was bought about six months ago, I put £10 of credit on it and to date I have 94p of credit left.
The point I am trying to make is how insecure and sorry a bunch of individuals most of us have become. We are losing the art of direct face to face conversation as we rely more and more on audio or text messaging to each other with something like 90% of it banal and trivial.
If people now become paranoid about someone hacking into their voicemail and decide to resort to communication as done before mobiles the World will become a beter place overnight.
I will no longer have to listen to details of peoples' personal lifes as they trundle around the supermarket with a mobile welded to their ear or again witness a stupid middle aged couple in Penn Station New York text each other from either end of a bench.

Anonymous said...

you didnt blog on this much - cos the word was put out by central office - that this was a story to be sat on. Dave didnt want his comms chief destroyed - despite the fact that on his watch the law was broken. This is another case of Dale the defender of tory policies - remember iain never let a credible story get in the way of your spin

Johnny Norfolk said...

Where is the evidence and proof of all this. I have yet to see any and to my mind it is the labour party just trying to discredit the Tories. Lets have some PROOF then we can make a proper conclusion.

Either they should put up or shut up.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

I never felt a whit of sympathy for Ashcroft until I hit on his account of being "blagged".

That said, two inconsistences show up in your version.

One is the old one, that Coulson has somehow paid his fine and done his time by resigning from the NoTW. I thought Andrew Neil (usually another utterance which makes me need a Lysol mouthwash) nailed that one:
"Many will find it hard to believe the editor knew nothing if the malpractice was as wide and systemic as the Guardian claims. Others will say if he didn't know, he should have. Some might think he was either incompetent or complicit. Either way, Mr Cameron has a problem on his hands, though not as big as the one Mr Murdoch is holding."

Second is "Yates of the Yard", with his non-denial and rapid defence of the Met's actions (so fast we should have offered him to the Ayatollahs for vote-confirmation duty). What I heard Yates say is that there is no need for further police investigation, because there was no "new" evidence and because phone hacking had occurred in only a minority of cases. He also confirmed that Goodman alone was responsible for "hundreds" of targets, conveniently ignoring the activities of the 304 other journos identified through "Operation Motorman". As those 305 journos had initiated 13,343 enquiries through Whittamore alone, Yates's "minority of cases" could be fairly elastic.

"Operation Glade", which as I understand led into "Motorman", had confirmed the Met and the PNC were already compromised. Moreover, the Met Commissioner himself was one of the blaggers' targets. At some point there, "vested interest" suggests itself.

Even if Coulson had somehow insulated himself from contamination by a "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement, we also have Rebekah Wade [Brooks] (12 March 2003) admitting to the Commons select committee that the Murdoch press paid police -- and her side-kick acknowledging the process would continue.

Jimmy said...

Fascinating book.

Based on a true story apparently.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely correct but where are the similar calls from the Tory Head of Communications and hs relaxed friend. The fact that Coulson and Dave have done nothing to condemn the corrupt practices within much of the British press or come up with prposals for its reform, and have instead been involved in a spin operation to downplay the Guardian's accusations speaks volumes. The truth is that both share the same view about the ends justifying the means.

Terry Hamblin said...

Anyone wants to hear my voicemail I wish them luck. most of what's left there is impossible to decipher and the rest is someone trying to sell me double glazing

Javelin said...

The truth is we all have something to hide and we all have something to fear.

We all think things every day that we would fear to be made public.

The truth is that nobody is politically correct, not even for a few hours.