Revealed: the shameful record of Britain’s press regulator


by Kenneth Roy

There is a special category of phone-hacked victims – the ones whose phones were hacked because they were first the victims of crime. This is the most serious of the depravity at the root of Murdoch’s disintegrating empire – the conscious decision of the low life he employed to make innocent people suffer twice. Yesterday afternoon, I heard the voice of one such victim. I spoke to him on the telephone – not as a journalist (he isn’t speaking to journalists) but as a friend.

Earlier in the day, he had sent me an email describing his emotions when he was informed by the authorities of the evil visited on himself and fellow victims of a certain crime. The email was distressing, the subsequent telephone call a cry of anguish. I have now had an insight into the full extent of the criminality. Rebekah Brooks is right about one thing: we have not heard the worst of this. There is more to come, and yesterday I got more than a hint of what it is. Has Cameron been fully informed of all that is to follow? His credibility is already severely damaged. When the full truth emerges, it will be wrecked.

There is one organisation, above all others, that could and should have acted to ensure that the 7/7 victims and the family of Milly Dowler never had to endure the pain they are experiencing this month. Its name is the Press Complaints Commission. It has, of course, been criticised for its failings as the regulator of press behaviour, although even now it has the audacity to plead that it should be allowed to go on doing the job it has so signally failed to do properly in all the years of its existence. But the PCC has got off lightly in the coverage of the last fortnight. The facts about its shameful record are generally unknown.

In the early 1990s, I went to London for a meeting with its first chairman, a retired academic called Lord MacGregor of Durris. I was unimpressed by his lordship. He seemed defensive, evasive and out of touch; at one point during our increasingly rancorous encounter he tried to persuade me that the regional press was as guilty of intrusions into private grief as the Fleet Street tabloids. I left thinking that Lord MacGregor of Durris would be a disaster in this role. By common consent, he was.

But I reach now for Hilaire Belloc: ‘Always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse’. The Press Complaints Commission then found something worse.

Note the following noble words: ‘Newspapers should respect the private life of all individuals and give particular protection to vulnerable groups of people such as children, hospital patients and those suffering at times of grief or shock’. Who among us could find it in their heart to disagree with these sentiments? They were uttered by none other than the chairman of the ethics code committee of the Press Complaints Commission. And who might that have been? Why, none other than the top guy at Rupert Murdoch’s News International, Les Hinton – the same Hinton whose employment was abruptly terminated last weekend.

In 2003, when the heroic Labour MP Chris Bryant suggested to Hinton that newspapers should ‘clean up their act’, Hinton replied aggressively: ‘Clean up our act? Are you saying we’re dirty?’. In the same year, Wade (as she was then called, before her marriage to Brooks) admitted to a parliamentary committee that reporters from her newspaper had paid police officers for information. Nothing was done about this startling acknowledgement of apparent corruption. The head of the PCC’s ethics code committee, who might have been expected to be keenly interested in such a disclosure, said nothing.

I called the record of the Press Complaints Commission shameful. That is putting it mildly. Yet it continues to lord it over the journalists of Britain, scrutinising and rebuking them as it sees fit, when its own reputation is worthless.

Next, who put their names to Hinton’s statement of ethical policy? One of them was Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, who quoted with approval in last week’s Spectator magazine the view that the only people who bought the News of the World were self-abusers. One has to wonder if Moore ever shared this interesting opinion with another of his colleagues on the ethics code committee, a long-time mate of Met assistant commissioner, the departing John Yates. The colleague in question was Neil Wallis, then deputy editor of the self-abusers’ trade paper, also known as the wolfman of Fleet Street, who was arrested a few days ago.

Wallis was not just a member of the ethics code committee, helping to set the ethical standards of British journalism. From 2000 he was a full commissioner of the PCC and remained in this privileged position for the best – or worst – part of a decade, sitting alongside such luminaries as Lord Wakeham, former Lord Privy Seal, who personally vetted and approved his appointment, Sir Brian Cubbon, former permanent secretary at the Home Office, and Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill, the widow of the late Labour leader. But here’s the joke – yes, there is a little dark humour in the situation – Wallis, the arbiter of journalistic standards, had two PCC judgements against him. As Chris Bryant pointed out: ‘You might as well have had Jonathan Aitken sitting on the committee for parliamentary standards’. Yet the situation was tolerated, year after year.

Let’s consider now the executives who actually ran the show. Mark Bolland, the PCC’s director, described himself as ‘a fixer, and proud of it. That’s what I do – fix things’. He went on to become Prince Charles’s press adviser, in which role, presumably, he went on fixing things, and then he progressed to a weekly column in – surprise, surprise – the News of the World.

He was succeeded as director of the PCC by someone he knew rather well: his own partner, one Guy Black, who was the subject of many a fawning newspaper profile. ‘He counts TV executives and celebrities among his impeccable social contacts’, one profile observed. Chief among these impeccable social contacts was the ultimate insider, the friend and confidante of prime ministers, the favourite of Rupert Murdoch: Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) herself. The two couples – the editor of the Sun (as she then was) and her then partner Ross Kemp, and Black and Bolland – went on holiday together, making no secret of the fact.

Only one newspaper expressed any serious misgivings about the close links between the Murdoch empire and the Press Complaints Commission. The Guardian thought it suspicious that, while it was censured by the PCC for paying a fee of £720 to a former cell-mate of Lord Archer, the same PCC exonerated the News of the World for paying £10,000 to a convicted criminal. Black responded: ‘There isn’t a shred of truth in the suggestion that the News of the World has lightouch regulation because I’m a friend of Rebekah’.

Black left the commission to become director of communications at the Conservative Party – a route to advancement later adopted by Brooks’s friend and colleague Andy Coulson – and later joined the Telegraph group of newspapers. In 2009, he was appointed chairman of the Press Board of Finance, the industry body which oversees the funding and running of – wait for it – the Press Complaints Commission; and there he was able to renew his acquainance with Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man, Les Hinton, the PCC’s former ethics supremo. The various connections are nothing if not circular. Black is now a Tory peer, the first openly gay one.

I called the record of the Press Complaints Commission shameful. That is putting it mildly. Yet it continues to lord it over the journalists of Britain, scrutinising and rebuking them as it sees fit, when its own reputation is worthless.

Better no regulator than this one. It should be abolished in disgrace at once – as a practical apology to the victim I spoke to on the telephone yesterday, and to all the other victims.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – Read Kenenth Roy at the Scottish Review

Image by Bob Smith