Phone-hacking, politics and Pharisees

I’ll return to the debate about press regulation after phone-hacking later this week. In the meantime three nuggets worth passing on.

In a media feeding frenzy such as the phone-hacking affair, instant reaction overrules reflection. Just when you think you can read no more, along comes a piece so detached and so sharp that it feels like a cool drink.

This is such a piece, written by a writer who mostly works as a film critic: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker. He skillfully shows that the roots of the corruption in tabloid newsrooms are long and deep; competition and economic pressure have made things worse, but are not the only cause. Lane also places phone-hacking in the wider frame of British media and culture, deftly suggesting that some current media analysis smells faintly of hypocrisy. Of all the descriptions of this affair and the attempts to understand its significance, this one deserves to last.

Among both journalists and politicians, self-criticism is in short supply in these days. Which is what makes this article by Jonathan Powell so notable. Powell worked at Tony Blair’s side for more than a decade and was in an excellent position to see the ex-Prime Minister’s dealings with the media tycoons in general and with Rupert Murdoch in particular. Powell could easily have written a piece without directing any fire at himself or his boss. But he passed up that easy option. And whether or not one might agree with his prescriptions, his diagnosis is accurate: “The root cause of the problem is press unaccountability.”

Lastly, a short extract from the diaries (second volume) of Chris Mullin, the pungently observant journalist and retired Labour MP. I remembered it when watching a committee of MPs questioning the Murdochs, pere et fils. The date of the entry is 20th April 2009 but it looks back to the summer of 2007 when Gordon Brown was reaching the end of his long campaign to succeed to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister. (John Reid was a senior Labour minister occasionally spoken of a possible party leader; “The Man” is Blair). The anecdote needs no embroidery or comment:

“Lunch in the cafeteria, where I was regaled by John Reid with an account of how, as his star rose in the run-up to The Man’s retirement, unpleasant stories about him began to appear in the (Daily) Mail and the Sun. Then came a call from Rebekah Wade (the then Sun editor) ostensibly about other matters, who started quizzing him about the coming leadership election, at one point blurting out, “Why don’t you withdraw then?” At this stage John hadn’t declared any intention to run against Gordon and, in the event, he didn’t. The implication is clear. The smears would stop, if he let Gordon have a free run.”



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1 comment


    Hi George,

    I’m a City alumna who used to work for you at The Times. I was associate editor of the weekly Telegraph until last June. I saw your blog post and thought you might be interested to see this piece, which is my take on the wilful ignorance of many national newspaper journalists about what’s been going on at the NOTW and elsewhere. I wrote something similar for The Indy yesterday.

    Emma Hartley
    07909 965648