Friday, July 10, 2009

News International - how much did they know about bugging?

Whilst the Metropolitan Police declare open season for those wishing to bug and phonetap politicians and public figures, it is becoming apparent that, if senior figures at News International didn't know what was happening at the News of the World, they were inadvertently working hard to cover it up and to protect their journalists from prosecution.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer takes up the story...

Now I turn to the role of Parliament and this House. In 2008, during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, under Clause 75, we debated whether there should be a prison sentence of two years for people, including journalists, who were caught unlawfully obtaining personal data. But we also debated whether there should be a special defence for journalism and, if so, what that defence should be.

During the passage of that Act, the legal manager of News International, Alastair Brett, e-mailed me and sought a meeting. News International was most concerned at the idea of the increased tariffs or diminished defences. Now we can see why. It put tremendous pressure on the Government to drop the idea of prison sentences for journalists being included in the Act. Was it actually the Prime Minister who instructed that that legislation be dropped?
At the end of the debate on that Act, the conclusion was that we would not include it in the Bill, but that it would be brought in by order if necessary. Will that order now be brought in urgently so that when those who have been organising these appalling systematic intrusions into people’s private lives have been on trial, they will get the punishment that they deserve, rather than a paltry fine? The fact that we did not pass this to go in the Bill seems a tremendous mistake now. That order needs to be brought in urgently.

When the News International chairman, Les Hinton, was giving evidence to the Select Committee, he said that the phone hacking was a one-off case. If the Guardian evidence is to be believed, there is a lot of disdain for Parliament, and an immense amount of illegal action has been going on, which should result in a criminal record for a large number of people.

I can completely understand why Members on the Conservative Front Bench do not want to mention Mr Coulson. Undoubtedly, they feel contaminated by their association with him. There is no doubt that some of this custom and practice developed on his watch. No one could seriously believe that it suddenly developed overnight after he had left. For the sake of their credibility on privacy issues and law and order, I hope the Conservatives will join me in calling, at least, for the order to be enacted. I hope the Minister will confirm tonight that it will be enacted, so that when an investigation takes place—as it should and I hope he will press the police on this matter—and, eventually, when this comes to trial, there will be a proper punishment.

I have to say that the implications are stark. It is surely impossible to believe that Alastair Brett didn't know that this was an issue directly impacting on News International employees. After all, the 2007 sentencing of Clive Goodman, the News of the World's royal editor, was a bit of a giveaway.

Worse still, when Gordon Taylor sued the News of the World later that year, his legal team served the Information Commissioner with a court order, asking for details of News of the World reporters engaged in hacking or any other breaches of data protection law. The dossier that came back listed 27 journalists. Is it imaginable that this was anything other than systemic illegality? Is it imaginable that senior executives at the News of the World, or at News International for that matter, didn't know? Or are financial controls so lax that you can file invoices for illegal acts without anyone questioning them?

Either Andy Coulson is an entirely honourable man, who took responsibility for illegal acts committed under his leadership, or he knew he was guilty and wanted to get out before the rest of the illegal acts were exposed. He would have known what Gordon Taylor's legal team were planning, after all.

So. Mr Cameron, will you ask him, or do we have to? And if we get the answer I fear we might, are you and your colleagues going to shut up about Damian McBride?

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