Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How New Labour sat on its hands over Murdoch

Although former prime minister Gordon Brown is rightly upset about the underhand not to say criminal methods used by the Murdoch press to obtain sensitive medical details about his son, the fact remains that New Labour did nothing to upset the applecart while they were in power.

The use of “blagging” by journalists or people working for them as a means of securing information is not exactly a new practice. Pretending to be someone else – in this case Brown himself – to obtain confidential information was actually identified as illegal in the Data Protection Act in 1998.

But the punishment was considered too weak. So the last Labour government led by Brown himself made changes to the law. However, Christopher Graham, the information commissioner who is responsible for checking compliance with the law, said today:

“We really need to get a serious penalty in place to stop this happening ... Frankly, we need to say to people 'You will go to prison if you do this'. The serious penalty that is needed has been on the statute book since 2008 - Section 77 of the 2008 Criminal Justice Act provides for a custodial sentence of up to two years in the Crown Court, but it has been suspended for three years because of a stand-off between the Press and the politicians.”

Inaction was the byword, even though phone hacking was known to be taking place in the early years of the Blair government. In his autobiography, Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, confirms that the cabinet discussed the “failed relationship” between the media and politics as far back as 2002.

He adds: “We discussed the issue back and forth for the next three years, but Tony never felt the moment was right to speak out…Gordon, who was courting the press, had no intention of agreeing to anything that might upset them.”

When the original Metropolitan Police inquiry into phone hacking unexpectedly petered out, many were suspicious why this had happened. Did the government pursue this? To ask the question is to answer it.

Today, Alan Johnson, the former Labour home secretary, told Sky News that the government did not set up an inquiry into phone hacking because ministers would have been accused of exploiting the issue for party political gain! He said:

“If I'd have ordered a public inquiry at the time, I'd have probably been castigated because in the run-up to a general election people would have said it was an attempt to get at Andy Coulson who'd been appointed by Cameron. So you can't take today's knowledge and just apply it retrospectively, you have to look at the information that was available at the time.”

Despite the despicable invasion of his privacy by The Sun in 2006, Brown himself continued to lend his name to Murdoch’s publications. In March 2008, explaining the government’s action during the financial meltdown, he told Sun readers: “My pledge to the British people - to homeowners, to businesses, to households everywhere - is that I will do nothing that puts the stability of the economy at risk.”

A year later, News International’s papers withdrew their support for New Labour after more than a decade and switched their support to David Cameron. It wasn’t long before Cameron too was drawn into the Murdoch web, bringing former News of the World editor Coulson into Downing Street.

After just 14 months in office, the Coalition is staggering from pillar to post, buffeted not just by the scandal but by innumerable economic problems and a widespread hostility to everything it stands for. With the lid now blown off the incestuous relationships between police, Murdoch, New Labour and the Tories, a full-blown political, not to say constitutional crisis, is gathering steam.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

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