There is one crumb of comfort that Fleet Street can extract from the phone-hacking scandal: its own foibles still create a vastly bigger splash than do those of newer media. This week Facebook investors harangued the company’s chief executive for wearing a hoodie in meetings and Yahoo’s chief executive resigned after a shareholder questioned his claim to hold a computer science degree. But they hardly caused a ripple compared with the news that former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, her husband and five others are to be charged with perverting the course of justice.
The hacking inquiry has become like The Mousetrap: a show that never closes. Unlike The Mousetrap, however, it is showing simultaneously in three different West End theatres: the High Court, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Magistrates Court.The proceedings have grown so far out of proportion to the offence that the Whitehall Theatre might be a better location: it has become a farce. As Charles Moore observed recently, it is not so much an inquiry as a daily revue where the rich and powerful insult and expose each other for the public’s entertainment. Or disgust.
Between being set up last July and the end of January — at which time the inquiry itself had only sat for 35 days — the Leveson inquiry had already cost the taxpayer nearly £2 million. Operation Weeting, the police inquiry in which 90 officers are involved, will cost £40 million, more than is spent each year by the Metropolitan Police investigating child abuse. The previous excesses of Britain’s compensation culture have been wildly exceeded, with hundreds of thousands of pounds being paid to individual victims. The saga has confirmed the reputation of English civil law as a machine for channelling large quantities of money to those who
Old news are already rich, while doing little for ordinary people.
The multiplicity of inquiries has also exacerbated a disturbing trend. In a properly functioning democracy, parliament makes laws and the courts enforce them. But the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. Throughout the hacking scandal, the Commons culture media and sport select committee has acted as a quasi-judicial body, culminating in the attempt by its Labour members to declare Rupert Murdoch unfit to own a media empire. To see MPs act as wannabe judges is a sign of their increasing impo-
The Leveson show may seem in retrospect to have been the newspaper industry’s dying gasp tence, as their law-making powers are seized by the European Commission and by human rights judges.
The draining away of parliamentary power is further enforced by the experience of MPs who have attempted to ask the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, questions in the House over his links with Rupert Murdoch; they have been told he will not answer until he has appeared before the Leveson inquiry. A public inquiry, it seems, now commands supremacy over parliament. One can hardly blame Lord Leveson for this; his inquiry was commissioned as a device to shield ministers having to answer awkward questions. It was, from the beginning, a diversionary tactic.
But if in setting up the Leveson inquiry David Cameron hoped to deflect attention from his poor decision to employ Andy Coulson as his press secretary, the tactic has backfired horribly. The vague terms given to Lord Leveson ensured that he would be drawn into a neverending inquiry on everything. The Prime Minister stands to suffer the ignominy the spectator | 19 may 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk of being asked to give evidence himself — being asked about riding Mrs Brooks’s horses, ‘lots of love’ text messages and worse. He can rest assured that Robert Jay QC will sniff around for tittle-tattle as anxiously as the gossip columnists he so disdains.
The tragedy is that there was a worthwhile inquiry to be held, but it hasn’t happened.The important issues have scarcely been touched upon. The inquiry should have been about the leaking of illegal information, not just to newspapers but to all manner of recipients. A huge market in personal information has emerged, not just in Britain but worldwide. Accident details are being sold by insurance companies to various commercial organisations. The DVLA sells our address details to aggressive car clamping firms. Police footage ends up on YouTube.
The News International scandal has been traced to the work of just one private detective, Glenn Mulcaire, a retired footballer. Are we really to believe that he was the only operative of his kind? Of course not, but he is probably the only one stupid enough to have kept meticulous notes of his misdeeds. The press is a small player in this black market for illegal information — and the press will become ever less relevant in the promulgation of all kinds of information as the less regulated internet steadily takes over.
For the moment, with hacking in the news every day, the print media still seem important. But that is an illusion. The Leveson show, which after all sprang from a press turf war, may seem in retrospect to have been the dying gasp of an industry which will not exist, in anything like its current form, by the end of the next decade. Britain already has more Twitter accounts than daily newspaper sales. Lord Leveson has not got to the bottom of any great mysteries, nor is he likely to. His mission, it turns out, is to preside over a bizarre requiem for old news.