Today in Parliament - Time to get Hackgate into perspective

So the Spanish Inquisition that was today's Parliamentary Inquiry did not end in blood letting, dramatic revelations or anything significantly new. The highlight was provided by some lesser known 'comedian' and Wendi Deng's swift defence of her husband. How someone was allowed into the committee room armed with a can of shaving foam when one can't bord a plane with a bottle of water is another awkward question for the police but with Deng on hand there is perhaps evidence that camp Murdoch are able to self-police.

Aside from Rupert Murdoch's close shave with shaving foam, the nearly three hour session of questioning did not provide anything incriminating. The various media reports have presented the questions and answers in different ways and suggested Murdoch senior was being senior but an objective analysis would have to conclude that what we witnessed today was the two most senior executives of a global company answering questions about what went on in one corner of their empire. Were they directly responsible for the goings-on and contol over them? - no. Should they, in the circumstances have been better briefed/had more answers? - yes - given the questions they knew they were likely to be asked it would have been slicker of their PR machine to have equiped them with more detail for answers.

The suggestion that Rupert or indeed James Murdoch would know or should have known what went on in one newsroom out of their entire business empire is unrealistic. The way the hackgate coverage and inquisition is being presented is that it would be the Murdochs who took a policy decision to require all their staff to hack phones. In actual fact they were running a global corporation the purpose of which was to make money. While - as those in charge of the ship - or 'on the bridge' as it was referred to today - to which Rupert Murdoch commented it was a very big bridge - they have ultimate responsibility for that corporation, the fact is, as they reminded (or were advised to position) today was that the News of the World was a very small part of the overall company's business interests.

While it does seem plausible that the Murdochs might not have known or should not be castigated for not knowing the detail of what went on in the newsrooms their company controlled, the plausibility and therefore credibility of that argument lessens the closer one gets to these newsrooms and those responsible for them. While we've had reference to and misquote of Piers Morgan from his book 'the Insider' in the questioning today, if one looks at Mazher Mahmood's book 'Confessions of a Fake Sheik' (at p.285 paragraph 1) there is reference to Andy Coulson's reaction to paying a model hooker $60,000 - "Andy was among the finest editors I worked with. He had great judgement and above all was fearless, with an in-built streak of mischief. He was always willing to take a punt and most times they came off." - which seems reasonable at one level but the point at issue here is that (1) you don't get scoops and stories (that sell) by being fearful and not taking a punt and (2) journalism is about / involves probing, testing and playing at the boundary.

The question is - to what extent can it be argued, suggested, proved that News International management prescribed how journalists and editors within constituent titles or broadcasters should conduct themselves? - can one realistically argue (as some have - though not realistically or credibly) that a Rupert or James Murdoch would issue a memo to all staff that they shall hack to get headlines? - of course not!

Where does this get us? - well somewhere between the earlier conclusions (supported by the previous investigations both external and internal through Harbottles - who will be regretting the day they took on that instruction!) that the whole hacking affair was the work fo some rogue elements and the current feverish suggestion that hacking is an endemic, systemic and integral part of the wider corporate strategy of News International. So could it be that the hacking is indeed confined to a select collection of individuals BUT more widespread than previously uncovered or conetmplated OR is it indeed practised by a wider spread of the journalistic community than previously acknowledged? It does seem surprising that the likes of Coulson or Brooks would not have known that there were certain investigative practices and payments involved in / relating to the gathering of information to stand up the scoops and stories that made the top selling headlines. They might not have known the detail but they must have known or at very least appreciated there would be some detail and dealings behind the scenes to secure such headlines.

To the extent one can accept that Murdoch senior and junior might not have full knowledge of how the headlines that sold their newspaper interests were achieved, this seems less likely when it comes to the editors. In terms of both the News Corporation code of ethics (referred to during today's session) and the regulatory codes in the UK, editors have ultimate responsibility for that which they choose to include in their publications and broadcasts. They also have responsiblity for satisfying themselves as to the context and manner in which the information/evidence that has been obtained to stand up the stories is compliant with both regulatory codes and the law. So whichever way one cuts it, a Coulson or a Brooks had ultimate responsibility over the stories they published AND the manner in which the material forming those stories was obtained is relevant to the decision whether to use it. They may claim ignorance but the difference between their ignorance and that of the Murdochs is that the Murdochs have a reasonable explanation and excuse while ignorance on the part of a Coulson or a Brooks is of itself an arguable breach of their duty as editor.

So Murdoch has been humbled, narrowly missed getting a shaving foam pie in his face but has explained why he would not know what reporters and their sources would be doing on a day to day basis. He has - emotionally it would seem - said that he has been let down or betrayed by those he trusted. SO the question is in whom did he place that trust, who was responsible and who can be shown to have known the answers to the questions both Rupert and James Murdoch were unable to answer today and previously.

The Murdochs might have got dirty and become stained by the hackgate affair but Mediabeak would suggest they will be able to cleanse themselves and their reputation as they distance themselves from the real dirt that must and does lie beneath. The list of casualties will grow but politicians from all parties as well as different levels of police are as complicit in being party to the rot that has seeped through the democratic process. The various parties have lost sight of their duty and place in that process and chased the status, opportunity and power that media coverage and perception can bring. But all of this comes at a price and it is one that needs to be collectively recognised and paid.

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