Some of my readers may have thought I was unduly harsh in my description of journalism as becoming a refuge for pimps, prostitutes, sexually dysfunctional and psychopathic reporters and editors, peeping toms and frotteurs.
If you were one who thought me cruel, I would commend you to try to follow the story now unfolding in the British press concerning the man I call the world's voyeur in chief, Rupert Murdoch and his menage of media properties and hacks for hire.
The News of the World touts itself as Britain's biggest-selling newspaper featuring the best news, showbiz and sport exclusives - and- on the web this week it promises the worlds sexiest video and the "50 most shocking celeb photos".
Although it is only a dozen or so years younger than the Gleaner, Britain's News of the World, (NOW) a weekly, has always been more venereal than venerable. I remember years ago, reading the NOW's exposes of pitiful prostitutes and the Jamaican pimps who lived off them. The NOW clearly regarded Jamaicans as a scourge and I well remember my amazement at their exposure of one in particular with a name like Eleutherios Christiades – the sort of moniker one expects to find in Ginger Ridge or Salt Spring. These pathetic stories Invariably ended with the prostitute having been paid and ready to play her part, when the NOW reporter, chivalrous to the end reported that he had "made my excuses and left".
The NOW seems, at long last, to have run out of excuses for its 'journalism'.
Which is sad, for such a crusading, high-minded newspaper, always alert to exposing sinners in high and low places. Like a great many Jamaicans, the zealots of the NOW cannot abide the idea that somewhere, someone may be having more fun than they are – and are determined to get to the bottom of these iniquities and abominations.
One almost had to sympathise with the newspaper's fury when, last year, a high court judge decided that the paper had no right to pay prostitutes to film their client, Max Mosley, in a sadomasochistic romp in which Mr Mosley paid the prostitutes to dress up like prison guards and flog him. The court decided that the NOW had no right to invade Mr Mosley's privacy and ordered the newspaper to pay him damages and costs totalling more than three quarters of a million pounds.
The NOW, in its outraged reaction, insisted that public figures must maintain "standards".
"It is not for the powerful and the influential to run to the courts to gag newspapers from publishing stories that are true", the newspaper thundered, proclaiming "This is all about the public's right to know".
I cannot imagine why the public needed to know that Mr Mosley, like many Englishmen, is addicted to being whipped. You pays your money and you takes your choice, as the saying is, and if no one else is being hurt, the problem would seem to be in the minds of people even more maladjusted than Mr Mosley who are compelled to poke their noses into other people's business and to judge them and scandalise them.
According to Nick Davies in the `Guardian this week, almost as those high-minded words were being published by the NOW, the newspaper was itself engaged in using the courts to cover up a disgraceful history of criminal misbehaviour driven by the need to invade the privacy of hundreds of people, most of them guilty only of being well known.
You may recollect that about two years ago an English reporter, Clive `Goodman, was jailed for hacking into the phones of three members of the staff of St. James' Palace. A private investigator who had abetted Goodman admitted hacking into the phones of five other targets, including the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, Gordon Taylor.
Taylor sued News Group, (Murdoch's company which owns the NOW) .
According to the Guardian's Nick Davies:
"News Group denied all knowledge of the hacking, but Taylor last year sued them on the basis that they must have known about it.
"In documents initially submitted to the high court, News Group executives said the company had not been involved in any way in the hacking of Taylor's phone. They denied keeping any recording or notes of intercepted messages. But, at the request of Taylor's lawyers, the court ordered the production of detailed evidence from Scotland Yard's inquiry in the Goodman case, and from an inquiry by the information commissioner into journalists who dishonestly obtain confidential personal records."
News Group realised that the game was up and settled with Taylor, provided he would agree not to say anything about the settlement. There were settlements with two other victims, on similar confidential terms.
As Davies reports "The payments secured secrecy over out-of-court settlements in three cases that threatened to expose evidence of Murdoch journalists using private investigators who illegally hacked into the mobile phone messages of numerous public figures to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills. Cabinet ministers, MPs, actors and sports stars were all targets of the private investigators."
Davies, a real investigative journalist, reveals that the News of the World was an absolute hive of illegal activity, targeting thousands of people including Tony Blair's Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, the model Elle McPherson, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, comedian and TV personality, Lenny Henry, football manager Sven Goran Ericcson, cabinet ministers, MPs and apparently, anyone the NOW editors felt like 'feeling up'.
The News of the World managed to convince the court to seal the file on the Taylor case to prevent all public access – although as Nick Davies points out, the file contained prima facie evidence of criminal activity.
Famous Last Words
The News of the World assured a parliamentary committee that reporter Clive Goodman was§ acting alone and that his accomplice was a rogue agent. The Press Complaints Commission was told that Goodman's behaviour was "aberrational", "a rogue exception" and "an exceptional and unhappy event in the 163-year history of the News of the World, involving one journalist". The News of the World's managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, who told Radio Four's Today programme in February 2008 that only one News of the World journalist had been involved in illegal phone hacking: "It happened once at the News of the World. The reporter was fired; he went to prison. The editor resigned."
Rupert Murdoch himself told Bloomberg News that he knew nothing about the payments. "If that had happened, I would know about it."
Murdoch's lieutenant, Les Hinton, then chairman of News International and now CEO of the Murdoch-owned `Wall Street Journal made similar excuses before leavingfor New York, as did the editor of the NOW Andy Coulson, before he left to become the personal communication aide to Britain's Opposition Leader, David Cameron.
Yet, a former senior employee of Murdoch's Andrew Neil, who was editor of the Sunday Times, said the NOW had no defence for its actions. He saw no defence based on the public interest: "It is illegal. That doesn't mean that it should never be done, you may have a public interest defence. But that's not the case in any of this; it was a fishing expedition …If …there was something of real major importance, you could have a public interest defence. But breaking into Gwyneth Paltrow's voicemail after she's just had a baby is not in the public interest. I'm at a loss to know what the public interest could be."
Mr Neil joined former Deputy PM John Prescott in questioning why the police had not told top politicians and others that their privacy had been compromised. "It's not just a media story; it raises serious questions for Scotland Yard, top prosecutors and for judges."
Neil didn't understand why the Crown Prosecution Service failed to act and why a court, faced with evidence of conspiracy and systemic illegal actions could agree to seal evidence. "That was completely wrong" and left the British criminal Justice system itself in the dock.
Roy Greenslade, a former senior Fleet Street editor reports in his blog that since the Goodman story broke three years ago, journalists were saying that hacking was endemic at the NOW, information obtained by hackers was readily available and used by reporters as a matter of course. It was a newsroom out of control.
And, as he points out, it is inconceivable that an editor could be entirely ignorant of a process widely used in his newsroom. "It is inconceivable that any journalist could have produced a story without revealing its provenance." Andrew Neil makes the same point, contradicting the silly American idea that journalists can confer on their sources, immunity from questioning .
The story becomes even more poignant when it is realised that the News of the World's phone hacking was not their only criminal adventure. The Information Commission revealed the names of 31 journalists working for the NOW and its stablemate, the Sun, together with details of government agencies, banks, phone companies and others who were conned into handing over confidential information. This is an offence under the Data Protection Act unless it can be justified by public interest.
Reporters and editors were commissioning multiple purchases of confidential information illegally obtained and openly paid for and itemised by the newspaper's accounts departments .
As Roy Greenslade wryly comments: "Perhaps News International's other … papers could carry leading articles calling on the News of the World to come clean, echoing their persistent demands for transparency at Westminster."
It is, of course, all about the public's right to know.
The News of the World has one option: it can always credibly plead that their reporters, editors and editorial executives were simply incompetent, puritan ignoramuses who were not really journalists. But that's not going to help them defend the thousands of civil suits about to descend on the Murdoch seraglio.
Copyright © 2009 John Maxwell