I have had one of those days so far … an in-tray that started quite light suddenly became a lot heavier and instead of having around a dozen things on my immediate ‘to do’ list I had a lot more, and it means one of the things on the to-do list – ‘another blog re phone-hacking‘ – got dropped.
But then in popped a comment on yesterday’s blog that pointed me to Robert Peston’s blog today and I thought … that’ll do. So with apologies and thanks to Robert (I’m sure he won’t mind me lifting it) and apologies to you if you expected anything more original, here it is. It is interesting, informative, and confirms what has been pretty clear all along – The News of the World is not the only paper to fear that squeaky bum time is looming, and the resignation of Andy Coulson is actually where this scandal, far from dying down, really takes off. What Robert seems to be suggesting is a dog eat dog strategy in which News Corp share out the pain, having been the only ones to get caught. So far.
And won’t it be interesting to see if the police have been sitting on evidence about the activities of other papers, and doing sweet FA about it?
‘You might call it the BP strategy.
It goes like this: company suffers a disaster; company offers comprehensive financial settlement to victims of the disaster; company admits to its own shortcomings, but implies that an entire industry has also engaged in similar flawed practices.
That broadly describes the response of BP to the appalling oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It also describes the new strategy adopted by News International – the UK arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – to cap the reputational and financial damage from the phone-hacking debacle.
Executives at News are engaged – they tell me – in finding out everything they can about who was hacked by the News of the World, News International’s Sunday tabloid, and who at News International knew about the hacking.
Once they have the details, they will offer settlements to those celebs, politicians and others whose privacy may have been invaded – to cut out the requirement for huge lawyers’ fees.
Any culpable News International executives will be sacked.
They tell me all of this could happen in a matter of weeks.
And, not too subtly, the message will be sent out that if News International’s Augean Stables have been cleaned, what about the stench from other media groups? Because, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there was a period at the start of this century when questionable techniques to obtain stories were employed by a number of newspapers.
In this context, it matters that Mark Lewis – the solicitor who obtained a whopping settlement from the News of the World over the hacking of the phone of Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association – is preparing cases for clients alleging unlawful breach of privacy against media groups other than News International.
I spoke to Lewis yesterday, and the allegations of his clients are pretty hair-raising. Which implies that those other media groups (and they know who they are) should probably be conducting thorough internal reviews, to ascertain just how liable they may turn out to be.
Not to over-dramatise, this has all the potential for the newspaper industry to turn into its version of the MPs’ expenses scandal.
But back to News International. What are the implications for that vast media business?
Now there are two separate questions of culpability here.
First there is the basic question of who knew about the hacking and who authorised it.
That’s primarily what its own internal investigation, which began with the suspension of Ian Edmondson, head of news at the News of the World since 2005, is aimed at discovering.
Now without pre-judging the outcome, when Mr Edmondson was suspended a few weeks ago, News International executives told me that they expected Andy Coulson to resign as the prime minister’s communications director – which he duly did on Friday.
Their prediction that he would go wasn’t because they had found e-mails or evidence that he was directly implicated in the hacking – or, at least, so they said. It will take some time for them to conclude their trawl through Mr Edmondson’s e-mails and computer files.
But they didn’t see how Mr Coulson – as the News of the World’s editor at the relevant time – could stay on in government, once News International had made its very public demonstration (through the suspension of Mr Edmondson) that it was re-examining its earlier statements that it had already found out everything that needed to be found out and had taken all the necessary corrective action.
For what it’s worth, colleagues of Rupert Murdoch tell me he knew nothing about the hacking. He’s in London this week and – say executives – is hopping mad about the whole thing. He is so angry, he may even cancel News Corporation’s annual jaunt to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
His son, James – who runs all of News Corp’s European and Asian operations – is also in the clear, because he was chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting when the hacking was taking place.
But there is a separate question that shareholders in News Corporation will want James Murdoch to answer – which is why he didn’t order this comprehensive internal review much earlier.
In particular, what’s hanging over James Murdoch is the statement made to MPs in July 2009 by two News International executives – Tom Crone, its head of legal, and Colin Myler, then editor of the News of the World – that James Murdoch authorised payments to Gordon Taylor of several hundred thousand pounds to settle a case of invasion of privacy.
Rather than paying Mr Taylor to keep his mouth shut about the whole affair (the settlement included a confidentiality clause), some would argue that James Murdoch would have done better to find out quite how systemic hacking had become in his organisation, and taken whatever remedial action was necessary.’