Phone hacking and the BSkyB takeover

Picture of Rebekah Brooks and Rupert MurdochThe News of the World now faces allegations of hacking not only Milly Dowler's phone, but also those of relatives of the Soham murder victims and there are now ties to the 7/7 bomb victims' families and issues around payments to the police. One question: why is News International's takeover of BSkyB still on the table?
There is an argument that says these are actually allegations made by another set of journalists so far, and the laws about people being innocent until proven guilty remain very important.

OK, but News International, publisher of the News of the World (and the Times, the Sun, and in its American guise as News Corp the Wall Street Journal) has confirmed the gravity of a lot of this and the facts behind at least the Milly Dowler element.

The fact that the Guardian found out about it all and blew the whistle in the first place is almost an extra, unimportant point at the end (although it's important because it belies this idea that all journalists are scum - it was journalists that uncovered this as well).

Based on what's been played out in public so far, the following is my view - presented as comment rather than factual reportage.


There will be a debate in Parliament today and I suspect there will be an inquiry about the leaks. This needs to happen. It's to our shame as a public that we didn't get outraged earlier when celebrities had their phones hacked; the fact that people like us have now suffered the same thing has clarified the issue for us.

But there's still this troubling bid by the same organisation to take over BSkyB completely. Now, as a journalist myself I can confirm that it is indeed possible for a newspaper or magazine within a group to operate independently of the others. Managers will see the profits and let the staff get on with it. I understand this is difficult to believe from the outside but it's true.

That doesn't put News International in the clear on this occasion, though. Because chief executive at NI - which will, it hopes, take over BSkyB - is one Rebekah Brooks. And it was she, under her maiden name of Rebekah Wade, who was editor of the News of the World when this stuff was going on.

She says she knew nothing about any of it. People have expressed their doubts but I'm happy to let that ride - she says she knew nothing and therefore shouldn't resign, let's assume she knew nothing.

Unfortunately this raises two issues about her. First, if she knew nothing then she must have remained ignorant deliberately - don't know, don't want to know. Journalists tell nobody about their sources except their editor unless the editor doesn't ask. If she knew nothing then it was through choice, to get at the story she wanted (although what poor Millie Dowler's voicemails were supposed to tell us I don't know).

That or she was too stupid to realise what was going on. Stupid or wilful, I'd welcome another alternative - neither reflects very well on her suitability as CEO of what could become our biggest news organisation.

The second issue is as important. She - and indirectly News International - was, as editor, responsible for the corporate culture that led journalists to think that hiring private investigators and hacking phones was acceptable. By all means this wasn't deliberate.

If she says she didn't give the order then I accept that. But it was her office, her domain, her bit of the company's culture, which implied that it was OK. And now she heads the organisation.

The bid

At the moment, News International owns 39% of BSkyB. As I type, within the last hour the BBC's Robert Peston has been on the Today programme suggesting there's no way the BSkyB bid to take over the remaining 61% can go ahead because there would be outcry.

I suggest he's right, but I also suggest it's still on the table and at this stage culture secretary Jeremy Hunt says there's nothing he can do about it. Ofcom could intervene.

What I'd like to see - if News International wants to regain any of its battered reputation, if it understands the damage it's done to itself, is for News International to formally announce no bid will go ahead. I'd also suggest that the individual behind the company culture that accepted all this stuff - Brooks - should resign.

That way the organisation might emerge with a shred of dignity, if it acts quickly. I'm not actually anti-News International, funnily enough. I like the Times and if Rupert Murdoch got a bad press in the eighties for forcing new technology into the newspaper world then OK, he handled it badly but it was nothing compared to the changes online publishing is causng now.

But this issue is a boil that needs lancing urgently. This appears not to be an organisation that can regulate its own staff, let alone a major broadcaster as well. There needs to be some drastic action and some healing time before it even thinks about expansion.

And after all of this has actually happened no doubt I'll be teaching the pigs to fly...
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