Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Hack

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 11 2011 @ 4:56pm

by Alex Massie

Gordon Brown has not often been seen at Westminster since his government was rejected by an ungrateful nation last May. But he's returned to the fray today with the revelations about how he was spied upon by journalists from News International. As the Guardian reports:

Journalists from across News International repeatedly targeted the former prime minister Gordon Brown, attempting to access his voicemail and obtaining information from his bank account, his legal file as well as his family's medical records.

There is also evidence that a private investigator used a serving police officer to trawl the police national computer for information about him.

That investigator also targeted another Labour MP who was the subject of hostile inquiries by the News of the World, but it has not confirmed whether News International was specifically involved in trawling police computers for information on Brown.

Separately, Brown's tax paperwork was taken from his accountant's office apparently by hacking into the firm's computer. This was passed to another newspaper.
Brown was targeted during a period of more than 10 years, both as chancellor of the exchequer and as prime minister. Some of the activity clearly was illegal. Other incidents breached his privacy but not the law. An investigation by the Guardian has found that:

Scotland Yard has discovered references to both Brown and his wife, Sarah, in paperwork seized from Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who specialised in phone hacking for the News of the World;

Abbey National bank found evidence suggesting that a "blagger" acting for the Sunday Times on six occasions posed as Brown and gained details from his account;

London lawyers, Allen & Overy, were tricked into handing over details from his file by a conman working for the Sunday Times;

Details from his infant son's medical records were obtained by the Sun, who published a story about the child's serious illness.

Charming stuff, you will agree. The newspapers have, effectively, been running their own intelligence operation straying far beyond the traditional or accepted norms of investigative journalism. But it's worth recognising that these practices are or were common across the board and hardly limited to Rupert Murdoch's employees. Other papers should be dragged into this mess too.

And news is a messy business. The line between publishing stolen information and stealing it oneself is a fine distinction if also, perhaps, a necessary one and defining the "public interest" is neither as easy nor as narrow as might be imagined.

If British public life is unusually or relatively decent (and I think, on the whole, it may be) then perhaps that's at least partly because its newspapers are unusually indecent and, frequently, contemptible (as they most certainly are).

Nevertheless, the struggle between the press and public life now resembles a medieval kingdom in which the monarch must put down rebellions launched by over-mighty and presumptious barons. For their part the barons offer a necessary check on monarchical privilege which might otherwise run amok itself. Ordinary people mind you might think it preferable that both parties lose this struggle.

Nor are these the only parties with an interest in this struggle. The police are up their necks in muck too. As Heresy Corner points out:

The most serious aspect of this whole saga may turn out to concern the behaviour of the police which, I suspect, goes much deeper than a few bent cops taking bribes from journalists in exchange for information. The Met in particular have used the press relentlessly and ruthlessly to get their message across, to campaign for more powers and greater curbs on civil liberty, to demand (and almost get) ID cards, to plant often misleading information about suspects in the public domain, and to increase their leverage with elected politicians. Who knows what inducements they have been able to offer, what quids pro quo, what threats they have whispered into the ears of politicians? No wonder they are worried.

Quite so. Rupert Murdoch is an excellent villain and a more than useful fall-guy but this scandal shouldn't be just about the Dirty Digger. Perhaps he's the worst but he's not the only one.