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Jim Knight

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Moment of Truth for the British Press

Posted: 13/07/11 01:27

The unravelling of the credibility of News International, the News of the World and Rebekah Brooks has been shocking. A culture was allowed to grow in the newspaper that was so far divorced from common decency and morality, that staff appear to have hacked the phones of murdered children and their parents. That is deeply shocking to the public. It is also on a par with MPs expenses, in that elements of a key section of society treated as normal what to the public is clearly wrong.

The press were merciless with MPs, and as a result an independent standards authority now operates to ensure such a scandal doesn't happen again. Parliament and the Courts should be just as tough with the press. After a proper investigation of the extent of the problem, we should also look to establish an independent statutory press standards authority to replace the toothless self regulation of the Press Complaints Commission.

But an independent investigation has much to do and should not be left to the police, as the Prime Minister suggests it should.

It needs to understand how widespread hacking and other forms of gross invasions of privacy have become. I have no doubt that this problem goes beyond a few employees on the News of the World. Why else is The Guardian the only newspaper really pushing this? People in glasshouses don't throw stones.

It should also not just be about the press in isolation. It is as important that the relationship between the press and the police, and the press and politicians should be cleaned up.

It appears that evidence of payments to the police by News International has been handed over. It also appears that local constabularies have known for a while that hacking has gone on. When a fellow MP had his wallet stolen in London a few years ago, he reported it to the police and then found it as a story in the next day's newspapers, is that because someone in the police was being paid? When another friend was the victim of press interest a few years ago, the police warned him to be careful what he said on the phone because journalists had much more investigative resources then they, the police, had.

An investigation has to look at why it appears that the police have ignored widespread illegality for so long, and whether payments to the police by the media has influenced their judgement.

Finally, the love hate relationship between politicians and the media needs reassessing. Lunches and drinks with journalists are a fact of life in the Westminster village. But the apparent courting of the likes of Rupert Murdoch by political leaders has to raise questions as to the ability of elected politicians to protect the public from the worst of the press. MPs Tom Watson and Chris Bryant have been brave in their pursuit of this, but it has to be a worry that we all suspected what was going on but almost all of us did nothing for fear of what the press would do to us.

This growing scandal is a once in a generation opportunity to ride a wave of public opinion and get the obscene power of the press in Britain under control.

 

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