The Yorkshire Post, published 22nd July 2011
Just as it seemed that nothing could equal the bizarre events of the last three weeks, the first three days of this week managed to trump them with further revelations as Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and John Yates, his deputy, resigned.
They did so on the back of an “association” arising out of the Metropolitan Police (not Sir Paul) employing the ex-deputy editor of the News of the World who, until his arrest a week ago, had not featured on anyone’s list of wrongdoers. Then of course, came the Select Committee interviews, the shaving cream incident with Rupert Murdoch and the theatre of the House of Commons on Wednesday. One of the twists of fate is that the interim Deputy Commissioner appointed to ensure the avoidance of a meltdown is Bernard Hogan-Howe, a former pupil of Hinde House School, in my constituency.
Just to add to the strange circumstances of “association”, it turns out that the longstanding friend of Sir Paul who had facilitated his early recuperation and recovery from an operation at his health spa happened also to employ the consultancy of Neil Wallis, the now toxic former deputy to Andy Coulson. Yes, the Andy Coulson who was then employed by David Cameron, the Prime Minister, in opposition, and as his director of communication in government.
Which brings me to where I fear we seem to be going. Namely, the equivalent of the French Revolution. A revolution, as those familiar with history will recall, which started to devour everyone around it, including those who had begun the process of bringing down the then establishment. The ruthless attacks of the moment and the ancient crones sitting knitting as the heads rolled into the baskets of Paris in the early 1790s have an uncomfortable feel of similarity about them.
The “guilt by association” is also painfully reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the United States. “Are you or have you ever been...” translated from accusations of Communism to “...employed by, associated with or regularly met, the Murdoch family or News International.”
All of this is now in danger of diverting our attention from the two key elements which are surely at the very root of the challenge faced by Press, police and politicians. Namely, deep-seated corruption and totally unacceptable intrusion into privacy.
On the latter, bizarrely we seem to have more intrusion into privacy than I can remember for a very long time. Some of it paraded by the very people whose privacy has already been breached, in allegedly having their phones hacked.
On the former, we have of course questions about the failure of the Metropolitan Police in relation to what has happened over the last five years and the possible involvement of the police themselves in receiving cash (what we used to call bribes) for information received. The fact that behind all the bluster and self-righteousness, many people suspected that phones were being hacked, computer databases accessed and on occasions police being paid for information, does not diminish either the horror or the seriousness of what has taken place. It does, however, require us to regain some sense of proportion. To not suspect that every journalist has been using illegal and immoral means to put together a story. Equally, that to smear – one by one – dedicated and committed police officers with the brush of a very few, is to literally pull the house down around us.
Clearly, despite his bravura performance in the House of Commons on Wednesday and his regret at having employed Andy Coulson, David Cameron is not off the hook. What on Earth, as everyone is asking, does “no inappropriate conversations” mean? Bill Clinton, as President of the United States, got himself in a similar unfortunate situation in his description of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Cameron had of course been warned over a substantial period of time, but according to the former chief executive of News International (another victim of the last week) Rebekah Brooks, it was the idea of George Osborne, the Chancellor, to take on Andy Coulson. You really couldn’t make this up.
But anyone who believes that politicians will not get to know senior journalists or their proprietors, and that occasionally as human beings they will be grossly misled by those whose very business is interpersonal skills and communication, would quite simply expect the impossible.
So, clearing up this mess; rooting out unacceptable practices throughout the media, not just News International; restoring confidence in the police; and having clearer rules of engagement between those holding political responsibility and those they must deal with in communicating with the electorate, are vital in mapping the way for the future.
Above all, restoring a sense of proportionality. Rebuilding confidence in institutions and processes from the collapse of trust in the banks, through the revelations about mis-claimed MPs’ allowances, to the present feeding-frenzy; which surely means allowing Sue Akers and her team at the Met to get on with rooting out the truth, and the newly announced inquiry starting its review as quickly as possible. For I am reminded of that old but still relevant adage “a lie will be half way round the world before the truth gets its boots on”.
But there are crumbs of comfort. The regional and local Press, including the Yorkshire Post, reinforce what was already known – that people trust the media that is closest to them more than they have ever trusted the big national publications.
In addition, while from time to time we have had our moments with the police (the rhino whips era in Sheffield), policing outside London has always been closer to the people and therefore subject to greater scrutiny. And yes, for politicians, coming home to Yorkshire and the blunt but friendly truth which this brings keeps feet rooted firmly on the ground. Long may it remain so.
David Blunkett is the Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. he was Home Secretary from 2001-05.
David also spoke on the phone hacking scandal on Sky News, BBC News and Radio 5 Live on 5th July, and on Sky News and BBC Radio Sheffield on 20th July
Listen to David on Radio 4's 'Post Hackgate: Journalism at the Crossroads' from Sunday 9th October 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015msph