Published on 9 Jul 2009

Time for whistle-blowing in the tabloids

“I’ve always assumed my phone was tapped”, John Prescott told me last night on Channel 4 News. I guess I hadn’t. But now that I read the Guardian revelations about the goings on inside News International, I suppose I should.

Any rational assessment recognises that email is unsafe. It is clearly hackable by anyone from friends, relatives and work colleagues to more malign forces – from the corporate to the criminal and even the state.

But somehow when it comes to the little thing that burps and rings at inopportune moments in my pocket, I don’t give a thought to the idea that someone somewhere is listening to my doings.

A couple of years ago my privacy was violated by a tabloid that decided to have me in a six-year relationship with a woman I had never heard of or met in a city I had not visited in nearly quarter of a century. Then as now, despite these revelations about the Murdoch papers’ activities’ I do not believe my phone was tapped, merely that I was a victim of sensationalist fabrication.

But the serious point from both my experience and that of the vast number of people whose privacy seems to have been violated in the present matter, is the complete absence of accountable regulation in the newspaper end of the media. The broadcasting industry is regulated by Ofcom and the BBC Trust. Whatever the shortcomings of these regulators (and in the BBC Trust look no further than their handling of complaints against the BBC’s middle east correspondent Jeremy Bowen), doing what the Murdoch group is accused of doing would quite simply bring the regulatory fist down on all concerned.

When the News of the World scandal first broke, and their royal correspondent Clive Goodman was jailed for tapping into the phones of the royal household, the self regulating press complaints commission (PCC) talked but its actions resulted in all but no action. Indeed editors of these papers actually sit on the PCC – including the editor of the very organ that published the stuff in which my own identity was traduced.

Fear of media regulation centres on a natural fear of censorship. In 30 years of broadcasting I have never been seriously compromised in my work by censorship in the UK other than at the hand of D-notices issued by government on the pretext that material might prejudice national security.

The time may have dawned when the whistle is blown on practices revealed inside one of the biggest media groups in the world. I believe the whistle must now be blown on the PCC too.

It is a fig leaf behind which all sorts of pernicious and unacceptable practice is tolerated in the media that it supposedly regulates. There needs to be a wholly independent regulator through whom the aggrieved, the wronged and the offended can win redress.

The tabloid press have done much to run down our sense ourselves and our society and the worth of others in a manner unsurpassed anywhere else in western Europe. If anyone is to blame for the urgent necessity for their better regulation, they are.



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19 reader comments

  1. Ross Burton says:

    Hear hear. The PCC are worse than useless and need to be replaced.

    I was curious to see what had been written about Jon and googled “jon snow daily mail”.–No-truth-allegations.html was the first hit, and very telling it is to.

  2. Anthony Martin says:

    All the regulating bodies are a corrupt load of insiders looking after each others interests. From the FSA & IPCC to The GMC. Corruption is their name, serving their elite clique is their aim.

  3. Kris Jones says:

    Some years ago I worked for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the area of media regulation. It was clear some ministers had serious concerns about the activities, and reputation, of the British press. However, I never sensed that even the most worried of them had any appetite for introducing statutory regulation. The last official review, by the Calcutt Committee (set up by David Mellor, who warned the press were drinking where drinking in the “last chance saloon”, before he caught with his trousers down), recommended strengthening the role of self-regulation. I can’t imagine, despite the current concerns, that any minister would want to be known as the person who ended freedom of the press.

  4. Michael Donnelly says:

    You know that if someone as close to the Murdoch Empire for as long as Andrew Neill has been is shocked by these practices…then this really is like a moment of clarity for the press.

    I must applaud the Channel4 team for spending so much of its braoadcast on this story…it is refreshing to see the hawks within journalism being held to account by members of their own. Applause also to the Guardian for publishing these revelations.

    I cannot wait for more of these revelations to come out of the woodwork, so we can get back to the business of news being about information and knowledge for the people.

  5. Matthew Cain says:

    I think self-regulation can be made to work (and truly independent regulation which protects the freedoms of the press and public is fiendishly difficult in practice) but it isn’t working in its current form:

  6. Mick Hills says:

    If Tony Blair had been involved in this Yates would have been around at his house now trying to arrest him . It’s dodgy, very dodgy indeed. This quick paint job will not stand up to scrutiny. Camerons backed a real loser here-Dodgy Dave yet again

  7. Peter Baker says:

    What I would definitely like to see if what the German have put in place (as far as I know): corrections must be printed at the same place and in the same format as the original article, so no more small “we’re sorry” notices somewhere between the obituaries as “compensation”. I can see that being very effective for papers like the Sun.

  8. g7uk says:

    We need an investigation into how Rupert Murdoch has used his newspapers to manipulate politics in this country for decades. This is the final straw.

  9. Dan Ehrlich says:

    This past week the heart of America’s government computer network was hacked and attacked, knocking it out.

    In the UK there has been an outcry about the Murdoch mobile phone scandal. Yet, this is only the tip of an ever growing iceberg….one not made of H2O, but of technology….technology built largely on consumer demand…a demand has had blossomed more quickly than society can conrtol it.

    In the cyber world there are no borders or even rules…people anywhere can hack into a computer or phone across the globe.

    Internet commerce is almost without regulation and enforcemnent. Local consumer laws mean nothing on the web.

    So, when a new way is found for a media outlet to exploit a new source of news, they jump on it.

    The NI case may be simply one of others to come until the era in which we are living catches up with the out control technology we have developed.

  10. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    The biggest danger of all with hackers is not what information they can gather from others, but how they can add , influence and destroy others with their own input.

  11. Jay says:

    Over the last few months we have had some of the best journalism from the press I have ever known. Well it wasn’t really the journalists it was a whistle blower who brought the information to the newspaper. They just read, edited it and printed it. But the mp’s expenses row was certainly in the public interest and it was absolutely right that the story was printed. The question is how you differentiate between those stories and the titillation or self interest stories that the press are usually full of. It’s in the story. If phone tapping reveals that a minister has been taken bribes then it is in the public interest to print that story. If it reveals that he has been having an affair with a twenty one year old, as titillating as it is, it is not in the public interest. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who cares. Unfortunately you have to trust the editor to make that choice. And if he chooses poorly, to have the PCC take action against him.

    Once again we are back to that old chestnut of accountability with actual, real, punitive consequences to the individuals involved. As far as I can see newspapers consider fines to be an occupational expense. They probably even budget for them. Whether it is a News Paper Editor, A BBC Executive, A Politician or A Banker, being allowed to resign, probably still get their pensions (In part or otherwise) and take up new posts is not being held to account. In a population of 65 million adults, is there anyone who is actually responsible for anything?

    One other thing. As much as I personally feel that the current crop of politicians needs to be watched, I have to ask the question, how is it possible in a time of terrorist threat, rouge states and increased tension with the old soviet block for a member of the public to tap into a cabinet minister’s phone? And when it is discovered, for it not to be investigated by the police?

    1. Charlie says:

      I think we should all be clear here about so called ‘ tapping’ .
      Nobody’s phone has been tapped, all we have so far is a few self important people who have not changed their password from the default one given to them by the phone company.That is why the NOTW or anybody else for that matter can listen in to stored voicemail messages.

    2. Jay says:

      Sorry Charlie, but no. What you are talking about is a matter of technical and legal semantics‘. And whether people changed their pin number or not an unauthorized person still accessed private information using a phone line . That, to most people, is hacking.

  12. Mike Hind says:

    I wonder if others are beginning to sense, as I do, a creeping despair about the whole fabric of our world. From banks to MPs and now Murdoch’s NI it seems we are being completely abused while nothing at all happens to put things right. For the first time in my life the news is beginning to make me very miserable.

  13. wilma miller says:

    I was disappointed by Jon’s interview with Alistair Campbell. It’s pretty nauseating to see this guy take the high moral ground and for him not to be called on it. He work for Maxwell quite happily swallowing all that that entailed and his behaviour and actions in Downing Street were the height of hubris and deception. It’s obvious that all these ‘indignants’ are desperate to get their own back for the McBride affair.Don’t indulge them.

  14. Rodney Dennis says:

    Since this story first emerged, I have to say that I’ve not really been suprised by any of the revelations.

    In his book ‘Flat Earth News’ Nick Davies exposes many of the more unsavory aspects of Tabloid journalism. The book even has a chapter entitled ‘The Dark Arts’ which looked at how newspapers have increasingly used Private Investigators to find out information on a whole range of people.

    After reading this, the idea of hacking into people’s phone messges is just a logical conclusion of the ruthless obsesssion of trying to uncover another major scoop!

    After all this has blown over I’m a bit cynical as to whether anything will be done to prevent such things happening in future. I’m not even sure how in this country we can achieve affective regulation whilst still maintaining press freedom.

    1. Charlie says:

      Well it might be ‘ hacking’ but its not
      ‘ tapping’ as the report inplied. What the Labour spin machine is really saying is that because these people left their default code in there, their messages MUST have been intercepted . How do they know? they dont . ‘ Evil thinks as evil does’ as my old granny use to say.

  15. Dennis Junior says:

    Wonderful idea, but…Chances are slim to none in the theory of getting whistle-blowing status for the tabloids…..


  16. margaret brandreth- jones says:

    Harold Wilson always thought his phone was tapped……..became paranoid.. but still could live 2 realties and safely bring th Country to safety….

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