Opinion: Hacking scandal should not be an excuse for politicians to settle scores with the media

I have deliberately kept away from the hacking and press freedom story over the last few years but now I have had a full apology from News International, it is time to offer a view.

The recent arrest of Sun journalists over alleged payments to police brings to over thirty the number of journalists currently being investigated by the Metropolitan Police as part of the phone hacking scandal. It has become one of the biggest investigations for decades and will result in court cases and further evidence to the Levison inquiry. It’s right that criminal investigations take place, but as a Liberal I am by instinct nervous at any steps to prevent press freedoms. Hacking is wrong but is not an excuse for the political establishment to settle scores with the media.

Perhaps more than most I should be tempted to call for media control. It is six years since I resigned after the News of the World ran stories about my private life. In the years since, I have learnt more about what the media did to me. I have listened to endless tapes of messages I never had from senior politicians and journalists, heard a journalist pretending to be me, and seen pages of evidence with my passwords, codes and private numbers.

Just before Christmas, News International apologised for hacking my phone and paid compensation, a welcome end to a long legal battle for me. But there can be no real justification for this level of intrusion, given the nature of some calls they hacked – highly private and sensitive calls between politicians. If democracy is to work, politicians must feel free to talk to each other on phones without fear.

But does my experience and that of the other victims mean we should control the press? I think the current police and legal cases suggest not. People have gone, and will go, to jail. And, although at the start the police ignored the issue – they told me my phone had not been hacked – they have at last taken this seriously. The controls are now in place and journalists should be given another chance. We want them to challenge the establishment, inform us about those who govern us and expose the guilty. All we simply ask is that they do it within, not outside of, the bounds of the law.

* Mark Oaten was Liberal Democrat MP for Winchester from 1997 to 2010. He is an executive of the International Fur Trade Federation.

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  • Daniel Henry 27th Feb '12 - 4:36pm

    You’re right that the scandal was due to the breaking of existing laws rather than the need for new ones. I do think we should use the opportunity to improve the press though. The PCC has some great ideals with a suitable code but isn’t enforced at all so is continually broken without consequence.

    This isn’t about government controlling the press, it’s about ensuring the press lives up to their own standards as outlined in the PCC code.

  • Lorna Dupre 27th Feb '12 - 5:09pm

    “He is an executive of the International Fur Trade Federation”. Hmm; not impressed.

  • Geoffrey, there were plenty of other newspapers who were equally motivated by “market forces” who didn’t take part in this, and others outside of News International who probably did. I don’t think it’s a market thing really.

    I’m no fan of Mark Oaten’s political views, but what you’re proposing is outright regulation of the press – which I don’t think any real Liberal would accept. Phone-hacking in what it was used for is clearly illegal and immoral; but would we say the same thing if, for example, phone-hacking uncovered evidence of corruption in Government?

  • Simon Titley 27th Feb '12 - 9:07pm

    @KL – Your argument against Geoffrey Payne is absurd. You imply we cannot criticise market forces because newspapers other than the Sun did not engage in phone hacking. One might as well argue that one can never criticise the state for threatening civil liberties because many parts of the state behave well.

    Geoffrey’s point is that threats to civil liberties can come from both the public and private sectors, and there is no case for criticising one while excusing the other. Given Mark Oaten’s flirtation with right-wing libertarianism, this is a pertinent question to raise.

  • Simon McGrath 27th Feb '12 - 9:30pm

    @geoffrey payne
    “And lets be clear about the consequences of this law breaking. The civil liberties of many individuals including Mark Oaten’s were violated in a vicious way. If the state behaved in the same way it would be condemned for doing so”
    is anyone not condemning those people who broke the law?
    How on earth you turn this into one of your regular attacks on free markets I cant imagine. law breaking should be condemned whoever does it.,

    mark raises some very pertintent point that further regulation of the press may give us a worse result than we currently have. A state licensed press or journalist which may be where leveson is going should worry all liberals.

  • NOW also broke the law specifically to get at politicians who try to take a moral line (whether it be leftish or whatever). There seems to have been a pattern of intrusion specifically to break the resistance of people. This, I hope is what the Leveson Enquiry will get to. The movement right of the Labour Party as nuLab took control was rewarded by NewsInternational, whereas those to the left – remember the huge attacks on Charles Kennedy – were attacked, by fair (ish) means and undoubtedly foul. I am open minded about how regulation is carried out, but it should stop the attacks on political expression where the media moguls don’t like the politics involved. And Simon M – wish there were free markets. The rigged markets we have favour the rich and powerful over the weak and those who would defend them. I have no doubt that “free” marlets since the 1980s are not compatible with our Lib Dem Preamble.

  • Tony Dawson 28th Feb '12 - 8:07am

    Why is everyone concentrating on kicking the Sun, NOTW and other media in this? Yes, they’re bad but it takes two to tango. It seems to me that what this Inquiry is scratching the surface of is British institutions (Police CPS, government) riddled with corruption and ‘on the take’ whenever the opportunity presents itself.

  • So Mark Oaten got compensation – big deal. NI never paid me or any of the other little people compensation for subverting my elected politicians and policeforce. They’ve lost a few mil of ad revenue from NoTW and they’d had to redirect some of their expenditure from PIs and blaggers to lawyers, but now they’re bringing out the Sun on Sunday so happy days are here again. The message is clear folks, crime pays. Deniability – works like a charm time after time.

  • Tony Dawson – I think Geoffrey is right in this, ie that the tabloids have broadly created this, and have done so by supervising the market in information. The story of News I nternational, after all, is about a succession of moves to marketise and dominate information, sources and presentation to the wider world.

    Your point about people being “on the take” is always true of some people, and the phrase “every man has his price” comes to mind, but the Brit – o – centric in me (having worked and had close connections with a number of other countries around the world) suggests that our levels of corruption are nowhere near epidemic proportions. By creating a market in services for people we have helped intensify any tendency to a culture of corruption. That is why marketisation is so dangerous.

    Mark Oaten, in posting this piece, has clearly been wronged by people at NI. But, at the risk of sounding sanctimonious (what’s new, I hear you say?), Mark did get involved in some extraordinarily risky and dangerous activity as an MP, and I am sure that I am not alone in feeling he let us down, speaking as one who spent some time campaigning for him at his famous Winchester election.

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