Apart from the occasional passing reference, there was next to no mention yesterday of the issue of illegal phone-hacking by newspapers.
This should not surprise anyone. With the exception of The Guardian, newspapers have tended to leave the story of systematic illegal activity by The News of the World well alone, for reasons likely to do with their own use or condoning of such practices. The news channels too have tended to cover the issue only when arrests or resignations have resulted.
The contrast with the zeal with which most of the media have pursued the superinjunctions issue, culminating in yesterday’s full-on frenzy, could not be clearer.
When it suits them, newspapers and politicians are at the front of the queue in expressing support for the rule of law as one of the principles on which our country operates. It did not suit Lib Dem MP John Hemmings yesterday, who saw an opportunity for a Warhol moment that would make him a short-term hero of sections of the press, and the cheap thrill twitterati. Nor did it suit those newspaper groups who have been pushing on all the pressure points that led to him finally doing their work for them in the Commons, and opening the floodgates. Nor did it suit the Prime Minister who, faced with a choice between standing up for the independence of the judiciary, and playing along with the media mood, opted for the latter when he sat on the Daybreak sofa yesterday.
The coverage in most of the papers has been self-serving beyond belief. Their self-portrait as freedom fighters taking on forces of evil might be justified if at the centre of this story was an act of serious wrongdoing by a politician, a Pope or a major corporation. It is about a footballer who had an affair with a woman who then appears to have sought to benefit financially from the experience, with the help of Mr Max Clifford and a national newspaper.
Twitter is being cited as the new kid on the block that made the granting of such an injunction unsustainable. But the argument on that too has been self-serving, all about getting the story out there whatever a judge may deem to be right or wrong. When an injunction is granted, the lawyers know about it. Staff at the newspaper know about it. They gossip amongst themselves and before long more journalists know about it. They tell their families who might tell their friends. That has gone on forever, on the thankfully fairly rare occasions when injunctions have been imposed. All twitter has done is add to the scale and speed of that process.
But until Parliament takes a view on how that should change the law, politicians and newspapers have a duty to obey the law as is. There is a wonderful irony in seeing newspapers falsely claiming judges are writing a new law as they go along – they are seeking to interpret the law as it is – whilst in their words and actions they are seeking to set the law themselves.
What they actually want is a system where there should be one law for the media, and its day to day assessment of what is in the public interest, and another for everyone else. Phone-hacking, theft of bank data or medical records? Well, illegal, sure, but we are newspapers defending the public interest. Breaking injunctions? Well who the hell do the judges think they are anyway?
Mr Cameron has asked a committee of MPs and peers to look into the implications of social media and the internet more widely in this fraught and complex area. I am pleased that the thoughtful Tory MP John Whittingdale is involved in that. He has strong views on phone-hacking and the failure of the Press Complaints Commission. (Cameron was at his lamest in suggesting the PCC might be the solution here … That’d be the body that had Paul Dacre as head of its ethics committee.)
Whittingdale is also someone who knows there is a difference between the public interest and what the media think the public might be interested in. He knows too that if he and his colleagues come up with anything that tampers with the second of those different things, and the media’s belief in its right to build up and trash any so-called celeb it likes, they will have major amounts of ordure poured over their heads. If they truly believe in the public interest, they should be prepared to take it.
The papers are under pressure. Take away from their staple diet stories of kiss and tell and the synthetic anger and envy in which they specialise and the pressure grows. That is what the last few days have been about. Magna Carta? Cant. Freedom of expression? Hypocrisy, esepcially in light of the near blackout on phone-hacking.
Sex sells, apparently. Celebs sell, apparently. What they are fighting for is the right to write about sex and celebs. That’s it.