Rotten to the core

25 January 2011 – Rupert Murdoch flies in to rap knuckles at the News of the World (NoW). A bit late in the day and in contrast to past denials about the extent of wrongdoing over the phone-hacking, but we should be used to such cynicism. And we must remember that Murdoch has much to prove to the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt – to clear the way for a takeover of BSkyB he must at least show that his word is as good as his bond.

Meanwhile as statesmen and celebrities reach for their lawyers to find out if their phones have been tapped into, spare a thought for the less fortunate citizens whose lives and rights have been trampled over by the tabloids – just to get salacious stories and sensational headlines. MediaWise has had countless complaints about reporters accessing phone records, bank accounts, police records and health files over the years. Such claims have been treated with scorn by editors and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Perhaps they will be recalled now that fresh allegations against other newspapers about similar forms of malpractice have begun to re-surface.

It should come as no surprise. Five years ago the Information Commissioner revealed that reporters from numerous papers had paid just one private investigator for some 3,000 items of personal date. As is the British way, there were no prosecutions and the Press Complaints Commission, wiping eggs from its face, assured us that the Augean stables had been swept clean once again.

But egg like ordure, has a habit of sticking around. It drips into surrounding fabric where it festers, leaving tell-tale signs and not a little stink.

Former diplomat Christopher Meyer quit the PCC chair convinced that he had done his bit to clear the air, but his replacement, Baroness Buscombe who once spoke for the Tories on cultural policy in the House of Lords, had to conduct an immediate spring clean and then fell over her own shovel by libelling a lawyer over the phone-hacking scandal and paying out damages from the funds supplied by newspaper owners to run the PCC.

That cannot be the reason why Richard Desmond has pulled his Northern and Shell titles, including the Daily Express and Daily Star, out of the PCC stables, but the current mess could finally end public acceptance of self-regulation unless drastic action is taken.

During the PCC’s governance review MediaWise warned that newspaper groups might refuse to fund the PCC’s effort to extend its remit and became more proactive in defence of ethical standards. With most of the main media groups and their journalists now active across print, broadcasting and online – and so well placed to get involved in Jeremy Hunt’s plans for new local TV news outlets – it is clear we need a single content regulator to replace the PCC and Ofcom.

We need an independent Media Commission to review the whole sorry mess and come up with sweeter smelling solution. And if anyone wants to find out who really knew what at the NoW and elsewhere – why not ask the people who signed the cheques. Surely they asked what the money was for, and who authorised it…

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise Trust

(Bulletin No 156)

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