Opinion: Nick Clegg should call for an independent inquiry into phone hacking

Yesterday, Nick Clegg called the phone hacking allegations “Grotesque” and “beneath contempt”. Today, he needs to tell the Prime Minister self-regulation by News International has failed and it is time for an independent judicial inquiry.

As Liberals, our first position has to be protection of the individual from an over-mighty vested interest. It is clear that individuals within News International in particular and the wider press in general have taken the power of the free media and abused it. That needs to be stopped.

If we cannot appeal to the Prime Minister’s moral values, we can at least appeal to his political instincts: David Cameron – of all people – must surely recognise that the public opinion is not going to see much difference between “Dave” and “Dave’s spin doctors”. The government needs to act against the Murdoch Empire before the blowback from this shameful and sickening affair brings down his Prime Ministership.

At the very least, the Murdoch Sky deal needs to be frozen until the inquiry reports so that OfCom and the public can have confidence that News International fulfil the requirement to be “fit and proper” people to hold a broadcast licence.

And Rebekah Brooks needs to resign. The principle of accepting responsibility for what happens “on your watch” applies to anyone in a position of power. No minister could get away with the excuse “I had no idea my ministry was breaking the law”; that minister would be expected to resign – and Ms Brooks’ papers would be leading the charge for his or her head.

Three things that an inquiry should address with urgency:

First, of course, the truth of the allegations: who knew what and when. The drip feed of “discoveries” from within News International – most recently throwing Andy Coulson to the wolves for a third time, now that it is convenient to try to save Rebekah Brooks – is highly suggestive that the Murdoch organisation knew and knows more than they have publicly admitted.

Following from that, the Press Complaints Commission has gone beyond a joke now. In no other circles are judge and jury drawn from the associates of the accused. The inquiry should report on how to reconstitute it as an independent body. I would suggest a model along the lines of the Electoral Commission, with similar powers of investigation and suspension.

And there is the question of the way Parliament has been thwarted in its attempts to investigate the behaviour of the press (and others). Lying to Parliament or a Parliamentary Select Committee, if that has happened, should be contempt and face the same penalties as contempt of court. And Select Committees (you could argue the Committee of the Whole House, also) should have the power to subpoena witnesses; again, there should never again be the suggestion that appearing before MPs is somehow optional.

The hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, and the phones of other victims of horrendous crimes, is sick and wrong. It exposes the casual attitude of the powerful towards ordinary people, and the failure of our system to protect and enforce our best standards.

It is time to put our house in order.

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8 Comments

  • There are two other things which need to be considered.

    Firstly, who is paying Glenn Mulcaire’s legal fees? (Mulcaire was the private investigator whose conviction started all this.) News International have been asked on several occasions and have repeatedly refused to confirm or deny that they are paying. If they are, it would be a clear breach of PCC rules (again.) Roy Greenslade has been making this point today on Guardian Online.

    Secondly, Jeremy Hunt has argued that the Sky deal and this are two separate matters. They’re not. OFCOM has to be satisfied that News Corp. are a fit and proper person to hold the broadcast licence. At the moment, the jury is out on that (to give them the benefit of the doubt.) Either Hunt should ask OFCOM to investigate and confirm its views to him, or OFCOM should take it upon itself to do so. Whichever, the whole thing should be put on hold until such time as the police investigation is over and a public inquiry held.

  • Richard Thomas 6th Jul '11 - 9:57am

    The prospective public inquiry must look at the involvement of the Metropolitan Police in all of this. The possibility of a close and potentially corrupt relationship with News International and their conduct of the investigation from beginning to its near end needs exposure and explanation.

  • David Evans 6th Jul '11 - 10:32am

    And while he is at it Nick should quietly say – and Vince was right all along in his assessment of News Corp. It might even put us on the right side of a News headline for once.

  • As Richard Thomas suggests, the police investigation of this affair has been woefully inadequate. In fact, that’s a gross understatement. They have been sitting on thousands of pages of evidence which they don’t appear to have examined in any detail at all.

  • “If we cannot appeal to the Prime Minister’s moral values, we can at least appeal to his political instincts: David Cameron – of all people – must surely recognise that the public opinion is not going to see much difference between “Dave” and “Dave’s spin doctors”. The government needs to act against the Murdoch Empire before the blowback from this shameful and sickening affair brings down his Prime Ministership.”

    But David Cameron has a problem – he is at the centre of the clique responsilble for this. He employed Andy Coulson until his position became untenable, and he hosts Rebekah Brookes for social occasions at his house.. He wouldn’t have become PM without their support – well, their support and that of the Liberal Democrat party.

    The Tory party are toxic, and the Lib Dems would be best off a million miles from them.

  • If the left go on a rant about Murdoch and News International every time the News of the World is revealed to have done something unscrupulous then it’s no wonder people defend them. I find myself doing it and I positively hate Murdoch, News International, and Sky.

    The anger is unbecoming, as far as we know phone hacking wasn’t employed by other News International owned papers any more than the press at large.

    An independent inquiry is now needed because of the way the police knew of hacking interfering in a criminal investigation and took it lying down, how far up this knowledge went needs to be determined and establishing why nothing was done about it is the most important thing.

    As part of the public inquiry it makes sense to establish much the paper and its owners knew about the practices and checking to see if the Murdoch trail links up with the police trial in any way.

  • Geoff Payne – I don’t think the media in socialist countries are known for having a strong moral ethic. It’s not really profit and market forces that are to blame, it’s a lack of morality which can occur under any economic system.

    On the issue of an independent inquiry it needs to look at the relationship between the media, politics and the police. When we consider that it’s an open secret that the media pay police officers for stories, can we really be convinced that the police are going to investigate the same people who top up their salary by thousands of pounds rigorously? This is apparently an illegal practice but not much has been done about it, and has the police investigation into News International has shown, it is quite possibly a major conflict of interest.

    We also need to look seriously at the relationships that politicians from all parties have with the media and see how this has effected their judgement when it comes to various media outlets potentially committing criminal acts.

    I hope the LibDems ensure that all areas are looked at and don’t allow a whitewash.

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