When you thought you couldn’t lower your expectations but were wrong


The news that the News of the World hacked into Milly Dowler’s voicemail account while the police were investigating her disappearance and there was still a hope that she might be found alive is one of those stories that makes you despair. http://bit.ly/lKawqd

A bitter irony is that it is so heinous a story that there’s only so much comment and criticism it could possibly receive. Unlike harigate, it is not likely to lead to anyone rushing to defend the methods used – even those journalists who would admit to using criminal means at times to break important stories are unlikely to say that the Milly Dowler case was anywhere near the grey boundaries where there’s a balance to be struck between the public interest in the story and the need to comply with the law of the land. Even if such a journalist could be found, I don’t think one will come out and say that it would be justifiable to delete messages so that more could be fitted in, as the NOTW appears to have done.

So, let’s hope that the self-evident horror of NOTW’s actions doesn’t mean that it and the people who were involved in this outrage get let off the hook as the media and twittersphere runs out of fresh condemnation too quickly. It should be a watershed moment, like the long-standing boycott of the Sun by Liverpudlians since its shameful coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. The sanction has to hit the NOTW where it hurts, its bottom line, and to do this it has to go beyond the readership of the Guardian and into the readership of the NOTW itself so that they become ashamed to read it.

Update

Well, it looks like the condemnation is unlikely to fizzle out any time soon and there is at least a temporary hit to the NOTW’s finances from a number of large businesses (Ford being first out of the blocks) pulling advertising from the paper.

The big damage is perhaps yet to be inflicted. First, there is the possible impact on News International’s acquisition of BSkyB and whether the hackgate allegations could lead to Ofcom determining that the Murdoch family or other shareholders and senior managers are not fit and proper people to own a broadcaster. The stakes are so high commercially that even were Ofcom to make such a ruling there would be a lot more legal action to follow. The second is less tangible but potentially much more serious for Rupert Murdoch and News International even if they are cleared to acquire BSkyB. This is the possibility that the general opprobrium and the open hostility to what has happened might free politicians in the UK from feeling that they need to court the support of Murdoch and his publications.

It was interesting that on Newsnight, Tom Watson MP didn’t exclude his party leader, Ed Miliband from the criticism of politicians seeking to curry favour with Murdoch. Up until now it would be surprising if Mr Miliband hadn’t at least hoped to start persuading Murdoch to be ready to be supportive when the time came – much as Alastair Campbell recorded Tony Blair doing in the early days of his leadership of the Labour Party. This has all changed today at PMQs. Even more significant is the fact that the Prime Minister, who undoubtedly already did have and wanted the support of Rupert Murdoch and other key figures like Rebekah Brooks, has also condemned hackgate and opened the prospect of investigations and inquiries which might take place sooner than the conclusion of any criminal investigations. This was somewhat risky for him given his controversial appointment of Andy Coulson, another former NOTW editor who had some involvement with hackgate. Although it is interesting that Coulson actually resigned from the NOTW when earlier hacking on his watch was proven even without it being proven to have been something he knew about or sanctioned – the precedent would be that Ms Brooks ought to resign too rather than wait out to see if she’s implicated with enough evidence.

Perhaps the outcome overall will be the welcome one of removing or reducing the perceived influence of Murdoch’s media interests on British politics. That would be a good thing.

Unfortunately, going back to where this all started to come out, the impact on Milly Dowler’s poor family is potentially going to be even worse than it already was. That might seem to be hardly possible, but then again, until the hackgate allegations came out, it already seemed inconceivable that things could be made worse for them. There is some speculation that the deletion of voicemails from Milly’s phone might have been something which should have been disclosed to Levi Bellfield’s defence team. The police clearly were aware of it having happened. This opens the possibility that Bellfield might seek to have his conviction overturned and a mistrial declared. Normally that would lead to a retrial in which his lawyers would have access to the withheld material. This would, of course, be bad enough for the Dowler family after the trauma of the recent trial. Worse still, if you can imagine it, is the possibility that Bellfield’s team, quite properly, would be able to argue that the adverse and prejudicial media coverage of his Counsel’s cross examination of Milly’s father (put into context excellently in this blog – http://bit.ly/l7Zc6Y ) would make it now impossible for Bellfield to advance his defence and have it heard fairly. This could mean that at least in law, Milly Dowler’s murderer would never have been caught and punished for that appalling crime. And all for a tabloid splash by the same people who thought they could get some dirt on an affair between two police officers on Crimewatch by hacking their phones without realising that they were actually married to each other.

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