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Hackgate – Some Questions of My Own

July 19, 2011

I had cleared my schedule, set (ironically) Sky+ to record, sat ready to tweet. Sadly, as is often the case with most over-hyped reality TV, the event itself was a disappointment.

The principle reason for this was an apparent inability by Select Committee members to ask probing, open-ended, non-leading questions which were capable of uncovering fresh information. MPs are more accustomed to making speeches, so there was a lot of rambling followed by “surely you could not disagree…” If Parliamentary Committees want broader and more draconian powers, I suggest they acquaint themselves with the principles of forensic examination.

One notable exception was Tom Watson MP, although others landed the occasional punch; his quiet, laconic, well researched and thought-out line of questioning was the highlight of the proceedings. The worst offender, by far, was Louise Mensch (with whom Rebekah Brooks is apparently on first name terms – perhaps they met at a recent birthday party) who spent the afternoon making speechlets drafted for her by Tory HQ.

Rupert Murdoch cut a fairly sad figure, even before being given the custard pie treatment. Most questions were followed by the sort of absent pause that could have put a 70’s Chekhov production to shame. Although, he did provide one tantalising bit of information: He visited David Cameron at number 10, only days after he had formed a government, because Cameron wanted to “have a cup of tea and thank him for his support”. He entered through the back door at number 10’s request.

Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in Tosca

Whether his doddery manner was genuine or an act, it left me thinking of the Act II finale of Puccini’s Tosca. The heroine has fatally stabbed the sadistic tyrant Baron Scarpia. She looks down at his corpse and exclaims: “And before this man, trembled all of Rome…”

Next up was James Murdoch. He should have been arrested right there and then for crimes against grammar and syntax – never mind phone-hacking. Rarely has a man said so little with so much. His long, meandering appeared to start and finish in different timezones. His repeated stuttering and dithering made me certain that he would wrap things up with “a-tha-the-tha-the-tha-the-That’s All Folks”. In short, his strategy was to be unintelligible.

James, like his father, either did not know, was not informed, had no inkling or could not remember anything. And was very, very, very sorry for everything, even though he did not know, was not informed, had no inkling or could not remember it. It prompted one MP to use the apt term “wilful blindness”. Added to their “collective amnesia”, the entire company needs five weeks at a spa, methinks.

Both of them (and Brooks later) tried to achieve an equilibrium between quite a few contradictory concepts:  the notion that they knew nothing of the practices in the companies which they run, while trying not to look like incompetent fools to their shareholders; that these methods are wide-spread in most newspapers, while maintaining that they had no idea they were wide-spread in their own organisation; citing the Met’s decision not to reopen the investigation as the reason they did not look further, less than an hour after Met witnesses claimed they did not reopen the investigation because NewsInt’l misled them. Like a circle, in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…

Trying to spin and balance such mutually-exclusive concept-plates is dangerous work. The subsequent mess looked like the aftermath of a Greek wedding. One important piece of evidence was uncovered, however, and I don’t want you to miss it in the debris.

The Murdochs admitted that until recently they had been (and possibly are still) paying the legal fees of Glenn Mulcaire, the investigator at the centre of the hacking scandal; long after he pleaded guilty and went to prison. I wonder, did Rupert Murdoch tell the Dowler family when he met them to apologise, that his company was still picking up the tab for the man that hacked their dead daughter’s voicemail?

The Murdochs and Ms Brooks (on the left)

Finally came Rebekah Brooks, with a dazzling display of “lost little girl” acting – high-pitch voice, pouting mouth, wide eyes looking up á la Princess Di. Naturally, this manner is so at odds with what we know of her character and career, that it must be dismissed as a lie.

And Ms Brooks did not disappoint. Practically the first thing that came out of her mouth was a lie. She claimed (helpfully prompted by a Louise Mensch party political broadcast) that the use of Private Investigators was widespread in all newspapers. She claimed to quote from a table in the ICO’s report What Price Privacy Now? which showed that the News of The World were only fifth in the use of PI’s and that the top four included The Guardian and The Observer. The truth is quite different: the Observer is ninth, with four journalists having used a PI to NoTW’s 19 (and the Daily Mail’s 58 – ahem); The Guardian is not on the list at all.

Ms Brooks was at pains to point out that her own phone had been hacked. How can anyone suggest that she knew about it? There is, of course, the obvious response: if I were a PI hired by someone like Ms Brooks to hack people’s phones, hers might be the first one I hack; it’s called insurance.

But I also have another, possibly stupid, question. All these telephone numbers and names have been recovered from Mulcaire’s assorted notebooks, scraps of paper and scribbled memos. We know he worked for the NoTW at the time. Why is the assumption that the name “Rebekah Brooks” and her number appear in those notes as a victim and not as a contact?

Ms Brooks described David Cameron as “a neighbour and a friend”. She pointed out that during the Blair and Brown years she used to visit Downing Street on average six times a year, while she has never visited number 10 while Cameron has been PM. But she also accepts that she has met with him over 20 times in the last couple of years. Frankly, I have much less serious misgivings about a PM who meets an editor or CEO six times a year in his official residence and in his official capacity, rather than 20 times in two years outside both.

Yes, all PM’s have pandered to the press to a certain extent, starting with Thatcher openly courting Murdoch and helping him dismantle the printing and journalist unions. Blair was a particularly bad example. But the Cameron/Osborne/Yates/Murdoch/Brooks/Coulson posse is not pandering – it is an infiltration.

But there is a final, wider, more vital point.

NewsCorp’s capacity to help or hinder politicians via the media they own is only one aspect of their relationship to the Cameron regime. The other aspect, the darker aspect, the less reported and talked-about aspect, is of a government getting cosy with a very large corporation about to embark on a very large merger. That government then appears to act, irrationally, in favour of that merger; determined to wave it through. This thing has always been about the BSkyB takeover; about money. This is why Cameron should resign. Not because he made idiotic choices in his staff, but because he made scandalous choices of policy as a result.

And this is a most prominent feature of the Cameron administration. Its relationship to the Murdoch empire is one of a nexus which includes allowing Vodafone and Top Shop to get away with monumental tax avoidance (or evasion depending on one’s perspective); it includes treating the City’s financial institutions with kit gloves (does anyone even remember Project Merlin?) while they fund the Tory party; it includes accepting large donations from Private Healthcare providers to the Tory party and Andrew Lansley personally, while the NHS is being dismantled.

What we witnessed today was merely a skirmish in a very high profile battle. But, make no mistake; this battle is part of a much bigger, largely invisible war.

And that war is all about money.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    July 19, 2011 11:05 pm

    Really well written article. I’m wonder though whether it might be politically fair to also mention the Campbell, Mandelson, Blair relationship with all things Murdoch as well. It wasn’t just Cameron, Coulson, Yates, Brook was it?

    • July 19, 2011 11:09 pm

      I do mention it. But as I make clear, I don’t think it’s the point. Pandering by politicians for endorsements is as old as time. When it begins to get entangled with specific (and quite massive) business deals, it becomes something else.

  2. July 19, 2011 11:12 pm

    I’ve been waiting for this, brilliant piece Alex! It was a good day to bury bad news indeed.

  3. July 19, 2011 11:19 pm

    Money indeed; its all part of the neo-conservative ethos – give the guy at the top tonnes and tonnes of cash and watch it trickle down to the “little people”. The fact that it has been shown repeatedly to be utter bollocks never even crosses their minds!

    And don’t get me started on Privatisation,… that’s worked really well so far (on a related note, I’ll have a link to a recent “save the NHS” short at my blog sometime tomorrow).

  4. John Souter permalink
    July 20, 2011 7:54 am

    Got it in one -“It’s all about money” – or power if you want to be more precise.

    A corporate Ministry of Mis -information has slipped up and its methods exposed. And the Human Resource department called ‘Government’, responsible for herding and control of the bewildered herd is desperate for calm to be restored in the cattle pen called democracy.

  5. July 20, 2011 9:01 am

    One obvious point emerges from this; if you want to get information from people they’d rather hide don’t waste your time bringing MPs into the mix. Is it likely they understand the issues well enough to know which questions to ask in the first place? No. Are they experienced in hostile cross? No. Why are they there then? It’s important to the nation that a clear understanding of what went on is prised no matter how reluctantly from these undoubted miscreants, so who do we elect to do this? Trained professionals with decades of courtroom experience behind them or a bunch of showboating professional politicians with experience of little else other than political manouvering? This was a situation demanding a high degree of professionalism and what it got instead was a mostly poor performance from ignorant politicians elected by an ignorant public.
    I found it dispiriting, a waste of our time and our money. You won’t get significant cultural change through a process like this.


  6. Stanton Carlisle permalink
    July 20, 2011 10:23 am

    You know I’m thinking, in the 3-D movie version of this, that’s coming to a cinema near you (and, let’s say, directed by David Fincher and released by 20th Century Fox, natch) I want Christian Bale to play James Murdoch and Geoffrey Rush to play Rupert Murdoch. Obviously David Cameron will be played by Colin Firth. Rebekah Brooks? Hmm, I’m thinking Susan Sarandon about twenty years ago. Maybe our dear old Kate Winslet could have go? And Judi Dench is obviously the Queen. Again.

  7. Chris Jackson permalink
    July 20, 2011 10:25 am

    Yet again, another beautifully eloquent piece of writing sir. It was almost as exciting waiting to read your blog, as it was waiting to see the re-appearance of a cream pie battered Murdoch Snr!

  8. Andromeda permalink
    July 21, 2011 10:04 am

    Excellent blog. Thanks.

  9. Steve Finney permalink
    July 21, 2011 12:20 pm

    Alex, forgive me for going totally off topic, I just thought that this article might interest you, in reference to the Greek so called debt crisis. It features on David Malone’s blog but it is written by Maria Lucia Fattorelli who was a member of the Commission of debt audit in Ecuador from 2007-2010. Ecuador experienced in the 80’s what is now happening in Greece, she has been to Greece to try & pass on the lessons learnt by her own country & is actively offering support. There is another way, an audit commission,that wouldn’t destroy Greece & condemn it to 20 years of misery, as happened in Ecuador.


  1. Media War – All About Money | the trader

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