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There has been a personal cost for many, often junior, employees, of course. In her email to staff following the announcement on Friday, Brooks looked forward to the future “without forgetting the pain endured by so many”. Nine of the 12 journalists to face phone-hacking charges since the scandal started were convicted, while more than twice as many civil servants were found guilty of being paid for information.
The Mirror group has faced civil claims.
The phone hacking scandal is over. So what’s changed?
News UK, meanwhile, has spent millions on the closure of the News of the World and legal fees as well as settling substantial civil claims.
This is nothing compared to the possible investor fallout that could have followed corporate charges, but these were always going to be harder to prove. For a start, with no one more senior than newspaper editor Andy Coulson found guilty, the CPS had to prove that the former Downing Street spin doctor was the “guiding mind” of Murdoch’s newspaper group.
The scandal, first reported by Nick Davies in the Guardian in July 2009, was always about more than journalists behaving badly and the ability of Murdoch’s company to support them. It was about power and asking why the police, prosecutors and an outlandishly weak system of self-regulation had done so little to investigate the signs and allegations of wrongdoing in the first place.
Pessimists could argue that the failure to bring criminal charges after a civil judge found so much evidence of wrongdoing in the Mirror civil claims simply underlines the continued power of the press. They argue that a teacher, say, suspected of hacking phones and accessing voicemail would expect prosecution. Constant pressure – of a sort that could never be delivered by another profession – and criticism about the investigations from sections of the press is bound to have exhausted a beleaguered CPS, whatever its failings.
So what has changed? For a start no one can ever claim ignorance of the fact that it is wrong to hack into someone’s phone and listen to their voicemails for their personal or professional gain.
And there should be no doubt that it is unacceptable, not to mention illegal under the 2012 Bribery Act, to pay a public official for information. Public interest, that phrase oft used by journalists on their high horse, should be enough recompense for whistleblowers. Only in that scenario can our fourth estate remain uncorrupted by chequebook journalism.
The rules of engagement between the police and the press have also changed, although for some this has been a problem. The police, who, having failed to act for so long, then opened themselves up to criticism for their dawn raids in some cases, should at least understand that their proximity to the press does not come without cost. Chief constables may continue to find lucrative work as national newspaper columnists, but it is hard to believe they will do so without some eyebrows being raised.
And what of press regulation? The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was killed off and in its place the Independent Press Standards Office (Ipso) was set up with a widely respected judge at the head. All newspapers except the Guardian, the Independent and the Financial Times signed up to Ipso, but press campaigners Hacked Off and many others condemn it as almost as ineffective as the PCC. The industry’s code committee is, after all, governed by an almost identical editorial board headed by the Mail’s Paul Dacre.
There appears to be little appetite for the so-called Leveson part II among ministers, but existing laws were at least used to point out that criminal charges can be brought, if not to everyone’s satisfaction.
And what of the political elite? The scandal revealed the closeness of those at the top of newspapers and the government – with their country suppers, horse loans and lol texting – in intimate and at times excruciating detail. There is nothing wrong with private meetings as long as questions are still asked and the powerful are still held to account. When the prime minister appointed a former newspaper editor who had stood down after one of his staff had been convicted of phone hacking, those questions were not asked. It remains to be seen whether they will be in the future.
The press has changed over the past decade, almost in spite of the police, press regulators and the government. And the biggest change has been wrought by the power of exposure.
When a tabloid reporter wrote that he travelled across Europe without a passport, his lie was called out not by his bosses but by authorities in Croatia using social media, not the police or the paper’s own complaints line.
Journalists, like everyone else, can still lie and cheat and do bad things. But after the phone-hacking scandal they will not be able to do so with impunity.
News UK may return to throwing an enormous summer party next year, and the guest list is likely to include ministers, executives and chief constables. It will seem as though the British press has gone full circle; it is up to all of us to prove it has not.