We mustn’t let Murdoch’s cronies change the subject
Is Richard Caseby making a sly joke? I only ask because it’s hard to explain his testimony to the Lords Communication Committee yesterday in any other way. I know the investigations there and in the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking are supposed to be deadly serious, and in the main they have been. But when Mr Caseby, managing editor of The Sun, used the phrase ‘sexing up’ to describe the Guardian’s reporting of the phone hacking affair, the resonance was so brazen that it couldn’t be explained any other way. He has to be kidding.
Sexing up, of course, was a term that first entered the popular lexicon at 6.07am on 29 May 2003, when Andrew Gilligan used it to describe the way an intelligence dossier had been massaged to strengthen the case for the Iraq war. It was a relatively minor moment that ended up, bizarrely, as the focal point of much of the debate about Iraq; in the end, after Alastair Campbell’s supposedly furious, and plainly calculated, intervention, Gilligan’s report led not to a closer interrogation of the case for war but to the Hutton inquiry and his own resignation, as well as those of the BBC’s chairman and director-general. The hoo-hah was enormous and consuming. And at exactly the point at which the country should have been paying forensic attention to the manner in which the government persuaded us that the Iraq war was right, it was absorbed in the question of whether a lowly BBC reporter’s one-off early morning broadcast had been fair to one of the key players in that debacle. We looked the other way.
If a parallel is drawn to the hacking affair, Richard Caseby’s use of the ‘sexing up’ phrase would seem to cast him in the Gilligan role. I just can’t believe he’s doing that without a rich sense of irony. The obvious truth of the matter is that Caseby and his cohorts are not the Gilligans of this business, but the Campbells. It’s a classic switcheroo, a move that the prime spin doctor of the modern era would be proud of; it’s swiped directly from his playbook. Alastair Campbell, it seems to me, realised that the debate about the case for the Iraq war was going to end badly. Accordingly, he set about looking for something else to talk about. He found Gilligan. And that made it possible for him and his allies to participate voluminously in a debate that appeared to be about Iraq – but was in fact about something else altogether, the important but altogether secondary question of bias at the BBC.
And so to Caseby, and Kelvin MacKenzie, and co. They don’t want to talk about – they are thoroughly sick of talking about – the forensic detail of phone hacking, and what it reveals about Britain’s tabloid press. They would like to change the subject. It’s only natural, then, that when it emerged that the Guardian’s original report on the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone had erred in its assertion that the News of the World’s agents deleted voicemail messages, they pounced.
“There are other victims of this reporting scandal,” wrote MacKenzie, in a blog for the Spectator. “Rupert Murdoch is one of them.” The Leveson inquiry, MacKenzie said, “was only set up by David Cameron after the Dowler scandal, and now we know there is no truth in it, what is the point of Lord Leveson wasting his time? He must feel a complete idiot, and the outcome of his inquiry will be a non-event.” And, for good measure: “Surely this Guardian story is a case study for the failings in newspaper ethics and standards?”
Likewise Caseby. “The Guardian’s false allegation directly resulted in 200 people being thrown out of work,” he told the Lords committee. “The accusation turned what was natural condemnation into a wave of such utter public revulsion that the NOTW couldn’t really function as a going concern any more and it had to be shut down.”As straw men go, it’s a compelling one: the story here, we are told, is about one newspaper’s vindictive agenda against another, and the whole phone hacking business relies on this single piece of reporting, which is now proven to be mistaken. It’s also utterly bogus. And it can’t be allowed to stand.
I have no agenda for Nick Davies or Amelia Hill, but the argument about the accuracy of their story of 5th July would only be relevant to the discussion as it stands now if the totality of the allegations against the News of the World were contained in that claim about the deletion of voicemails. The truth is, even at the time, the deletion was a secondary, slightly technical detail that embellished the shocking key fact of the hacking itself; if you don’t believe me, consult the headlines at the time, which almost universally focus on the hacking, rather than the deletion, which became a far stronger point of focus after the Dowler family’s testimony to Leveson. Already back in July, there was a litany of damning evidence against News International – one of the most shocking things about all of this is that it took something so grotesque as the Dowler allegation to bring the wider scrutiny that had previously been almost totally lacking (as I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review back in March), with this newspaper standing alongside the Guardian as an honourable exception to the trend. Far more evidence has emerged since. It has only drawn less attention than the Dowler claim because the depths had already been plumbed.
As for the claim that the NOTW couldn’t function any more: only one person made the decision to shut that paper, Rupert Murdoch. When the decision was announced, it was obvious that it was a reaction to a sense that the body of evidence against the paper was simply too enormous to contend with. (“In a year you will understand why we made this decision,” Rebekah Brooks is supposed to have said at the time.) And it was a complete surprise, a move that took many observers aback even as it confirmed Mr Murdoch’s unerring ruthlessness in a crisis. The version of the narrative in which it was inevitable has only taken hold after the fact.
There is, perhaps, a conversation to be had about the reporting on that particular Guardian story. But it is a short conversation, and its implications are not extensive. Above all, it has nothing at all to do with the case that News International and its senior executives must still answer. To claim anything else – to attempt to cast this whole sordid affair as a simple he-said-she-said fight between one newspaper and another – is a joke. And it is not a very good one.
Picture credit: Teri Pengilley; AFPTagged in: Kelvin, Leveson Inquiry, MacKenzie, Murdoch, news of the world, Richard Caseby, Rupert, the guardian, the sun
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