It never ceases to amaze me how media organisations, so sharp and skilful in covering other people’s crises, are often so poor at handling their own.
I have been saying here since well before the last election that the only way for News International to deal with the phone-hacking scandal is to get everything out there and deal with the fall-out, whatever the cost both financially and in terms of difficulty to individuals. It is going to cost them more, financially, reputationally and in terms of the fate of individuals, precisely because the truth has been dragged kicking and screaming, and the stench has grown.
And if the intention of yesterday’s statement of regret and admitted partial liability was to bring some kind of closure, in part because of the track record on this, it won’t work.
Indeed, just as Andy Coulson’s ‘line-drawing’ resignation from Downing St in fact acted as something of a dambuster, not least in relation to the nature of the re-opened police inquiry, there is every chance that this will too.
It has brought into even sharper relief some of the difficult questions which, with the help of other newspapers’ reluctance to go too deep for their own self-serving reasons, News had been hoping would go away.
Yesterday’s statement is being presented as a late and reluctant admission of guilt. But the substantial out of court settlements with, among others, PFA boss Gordon Taylor, were also admissions of guilt. There is no way these six figure sums were paid out without agreement from the top, certainly James and possibly Rupert Murdoch, and no way they would have agreed to them unless they had no choice.
There is also the question now of whether Parliamentary committees have been misled not just by News but by Yates of the Yard. Culture select committee chairman John Whittingdale has told me he intends to re-open his inquiry into this when the police probe is over. And of course Andy Coulson has repeated in court his oft-stated ignorance of what went on in court, something which has been openly challenged by a former employee Paul McMullan, who insists phone-hacking was taking place on an industrial basis and with everyone’s knowledge.
As for Yates of the Yard, from what I know of the two men I think he has erred in picking something of a war of words with the DPP Keir Starmer. In any event, Yates’ investigation (sic) is an utter humiliation for him and the Met. All those Sunday paper profiles tipping him as a future Commissioner now look comical, and all of a piece with an overcosy relationship between press and police.
It is clear that the second investigation is being pursued with proper vigour. And herein lies News International’s real problem. They may think they can have some control over the way the compensation fund works – though it will only take one person offered a deal to refuse it to keep the thing going through the courts. But that only deals with civil cases. The police investigation is about criminal activity, and recent arrests, and talk of more to come, mean this is far from over. The deeper that probe goes, the less control News have, the more unpredictable it becomes. There is also the case of Jonathan Rees, the private detective whose activities continue to be investigated.
On the question of the News takeover of BSkyB, John Prescott is leading the charge in saying that criminal activity having been admitted, it should not be allowed, full stop. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will hide behind ‘quasi judicial’ and ‘only interested in questions of plurality’. But there comes a point where that could do real political damage to David Cameron. And as several of his colleagues have already learned, when Cameron senses damage to himself, he is not exactly backward in moving forward against the damager.
One final point – of course the other papers had to cover such a major announcement as yesterday. But one or two apart, they are not exactly pursuing the story with vigour. I think we all know why, and at some point the net could well widen to other papers and other criminal activities, which go well beyond phone-hacking.