Street of Shame

Goodness knows where this story will be by the time this article appears such is its fluid nature. What is clear is that this country is facing a national crisis; in its police, in its media, even in its politics.

Over the past few weeks, we have all been shocked and repulsed by the revelations about the phone hacking scandal; murder victims, terrorist victims, families who have lost loved ones in war, sometimes defending our country, have had their privacy intruded on in order to sell newspapers. Even the Royal family has been targeted. Then, last week we saw former Prime Minister Gordon Brown launch an all-out attack on News International accusing it of using ""disgusting"" methods to gain access to personal information.

National journalism is now reeking in this country but criticism is also due to politicians and the police for colluding in these activities. To be honest, (Exmouth Journal aside!) Britain has always had a scrappy press partly because the national papers operate in a brutally competitive market and in an industry which is in decline. Britain had come to accept its newspapers as rude, excessive and untrustworthy. For most people the view was that politicians and celebrities deserved what they got because they live a public life. But when the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile was revealed and in a way that raised hopes that she was alive, the tipping point came and there was no turning back. As far as the public was concerned this was callousness heaped on criminality.

The real concern is how our newsrooms were allowed to spiral so far out of control. And we know it is not just News International. In 2006 the Information Commissioner explained that the use of private investigators was widespread. Just look at how Britain’s other tabloid newspapers, which love to kick a rival when it’s down, have been far less robust than usual. Very shortly, I suspect, we will also be learning what they have been up to as well.

And what about the police? The initial investigation by the Metropolitan Police into phone hacking was pitiful. For years they sat on a huge batch of documents and did nothing. There are also now allegations of illegal payments for information.

But Politicians are tainted too because they failed to grip the issue. Reports went unheeded; warnings from select committee were not followed up. Throughout all this, the then Labour government did nothing. And frankly, neither did we, the opposition. To be fair, it is difficult for politicians to call for more regulation of the media, because if we do so, we're accused of wanting to stifle a free press or even free speech. But there is a deeper truth and it is this: party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers, they turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, get on top of the bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated. Now, that the scandal has hit and the truth is plain for everyone to see there are two choices. You can downplay it and deny the problem is deep – or you can accept the seriousness of the situation and deal with it. David Cameron has indicated he wants to deal with it. There will now be two inquiries, one will be led by a judge and will begin once the police investigation is over, and another will look at newspaper ethics. The Prime Minister has also said the press regulator the Press Complaints Commission, which has proven to be so ineffective, should be scrapped. Meanwhile News Corporation’s bid to own BSkyB outright have been dashed until next year after the Government decided to order an exhaustive competition inquiry in response to the public outcry.

So what will happen after all has been revealed and all the inquiries are over and the relevant people are prosecuted? Well, politicians and journalists will still speak to each other; know each other. Democracy is government by explanation and we will always need the media to explain what we're trying to do. But what will have passed will have been a wakeup call; less time will be spent courting support, and not confronting the problems. Hopefully the relationship will be different, not some nirvana of two separate worlds, but relating to each other on the basis of total transparency and ethical perfection. Because as this scandal shows, while it's vital that a free press can tell truth to power, it is equally important that those in power can tell truth to the press.