Handling hackers will be acid test of new press regime
As the hacking trial sees its 18th week Ruth Dudley Edwards outlines the challenge for proponents of press self-regulation
IN ITS 18th week, the trial of six one-time employees of the now-defunct News of the World (NotW) and of Rebekah Brooks's husband, Charlie, focused on Clive Goodman, everyone's nightmare tabloid journalist – the sort of guy you could imagine listening gleefully to innocent messages on his granny's phone and fashioning them into a front-page story about geriatric orgies in the Women's Institute.
Goodman, the paper's royal editor, was briefly jailed in 2007 after pleading guilty to hacking the phones of aides to Prince Charles, William and Harry. In his thirst for royal tittle-tattle, Goodman had foolishly printed information known to so few that the police were called in.
At the Old Bailey, he's accused of two counts of conspiring with Andrew Coulson (NotW deputy editor and then editor) "to commit misconduct in public office" by paying public officials for information. Coulson is addi- tionally charged with "conspiracy to intercept communications in the course of their transmission without lawful authority", as lawyers put it. In general, Goodman was rough on his old "bullying" and "menacing" boss, claiming he'd "set up the payments to facilitate" hacking and had promised to give Goodman his job back post-prison if he pretended he had been "a lone wolf". Yet hacking, said Goodman, was being conducted "on a pretty industrial scale", with one of his senior colleagues even targeting Coulson's phone to find out what other stories were in the pipeline from the viciously competitive newsroom.
A major part of the case against Goodman is his possession of 15 confidential internal Royal Household phone directories which he is accused of buying from public officials. One of them, he said, had come directly from Princess Diana. "She told me
she wanted me to see the scale of her husband's staff and household ... She was looking for an ally to take him on – to show there were forces that would rage against him." Two more, he said, were given to him by a disaffected former valet of Prince Charles, and all were acquired without paying anyone official.
He painted a gloomy picture of life as a royal reporter in the years immediately after Diana's death, because of an agreement to leave her sons alone during their childhood. "All we had left to write about was Camilla and Charles," which is why he had hacked the phone of Tom Parker Bowles, a food writer and Camilla's son.
Coulson's lawyer began giving Goodman a rough going-over about the destination of innumerable cash payments to unidentified people, implying he was on the take, and the whole thing was hotting up nicely when, on Friday morning, Goodman told the judge he was feeling unwell and was despatched to hospital, while everyone else went home.
My heart doesn't often bleed for judges, but this case is scheduled to run till May, Mr Justice Saunders has already had to discharge a juror on grounds of ill-health, and the thought of losing Goodman before the cross-examination is over must be messing up his weekend.
Coincidentally, no doubt, Hacked Off, a pressure group that aims to clip the wings of the tabloids, ran full-page press advertisements last week. Featuring dozens of famous and admired names like Sir David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley, John Cleese and ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, it asked: "What do all these people have in common?" The answer was that they wanted the implementation of a form of press regulation underpinned by Royal Charter which was agreed by parliament last year.
Opponents of this rushed and hysterical legislation (like me) fear that once politicians get their grubby hands anywhere near press controls, free speech will be fatally undermined. The tabloids can be ugly and damaging, but it is fearless investigative journalism that keeps British public life pretty clean. And, in truth, had the police been doing their job, the criminal law could have dealt with press excesses years ago.
In an editorial opposite the advertisement, the Spectator, which has been uncompromising in its opposition to the Charter, noted that Hacked Off's campaign "was led by a very different group of priapic celebrities and moguls – whose names it has wisely chosen not to include in this list. It could hardly print the names Max Mosley [sado-masochistic orgies], John Prescott [affair with his diary secretary] and Hugh Grant [embarrassing encounter with prostitute and concealed children from fleeting affairs] and then ask, 'What do these people have in common?'".
More to the point, the vast majority of the press (the Financial Times, Guardian and Independent are observing from the fence) are boycotting the Charter and will be introducing in May what the Spectator calls "the toughest self-regulatory system in the western world". Its success will be judged on how it reins in the likes of Clive Goodman.