The ramifications of the UK phone hacking scandal, in which murder victims, journalists and politicians had their phones tapped, are still playing out.
Last year the scandal sank the UK tabloid, The News of the World (NOTW), and led to the public shaming of Rupert Murdoch and his son James. Now News International executive Rebekah Brooks and former NOTW editor Andy Coulson, along with around 50 others, face criminal charges and the inquiry chaired by Lord Leveson is expected soon to release its findings.
Today, The Conversation presents a discussion between UK lawyer Charlotte Harris, who represented some of the phone hacking victims, and Rod Tiffen, Emeritus Professor, Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, who is writing a book about Rupert Murdoch.
Rod Tiffen: To me, there’s two astounding things about all this. First is the extent of the scandal: the scale of the phone hacking, the breaking into emails, the bribery of public officials that was routinely practised by the Murdoch tabloids. But the second astonishing thing is that the scandal almost never became a public scandal in a large and revealing way. For four and a half years – from the convictions of journalist Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire in January 2007 until July 2011 when the Guardian published that murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone had been tapped – News International publicly maintained the defence that it was all the work of a single rogue reporter.
Charlotte Harris: One of the most fascinating things about this is the cover-up… What was fascinating was the fact that the British press —- who had, for so long, said that it’s a free press and they should continue to be self-regulated because they exposed scandal – systematically failed to expose their own scandal.
Rod Tiffen: At one level, the damage comes from the exposure of peoples’ private lives but at the other it is the impact on their personal relationships. Did you see that?
Charlotte Harris: Yes, absolutely. And so it’s very Hitchcockian. It’s very gaslighting. It’s like going into somebody’s house and moving around the furniture and insisting it was always like that. And we see that with Mary Ellen Field’s case, where she was blamed for leaking information that turned out to have been, or we suspect, the subject of hacking. Mary Ellen Field is an Australian lady who used to be one of the assistants to Elle Macpherson.
Rod Tiffen: What shocked you most as you got into these things?
Charlotte Harris: It was looking at all of this evidence and realising that there was this situation where private detectives had been used for years and years and that people knew about it and that nothing had been done.
My big, big turning point with it was my client, Leslie Ash, who is an actress and is married to the ex-premier league footballer Lee Chapman… She was very brave and an early voice as well. So we made our way down to the metropolitan police and we’d said we want to look for Leslie Ash’s name and also her married name, which is Leslie Chapman.
And so they showed us these papers and Leslie and Lee and I are looking at them and the policeman said something along the lines of “You know, well, this says Leslie Chapman, but you can see that it says Fulham, which is where they lived, but it doesn’t have a Fulham postcode.” And I looked at it and I said “It doesn’t say Fulham; it says Soham.”
And Leslie Chapman happens to be the same name as the father of the murdered schoolgirl Jessica Chapman… which happened in Soham and which was a terrible, terrible murder.
This was in January 2011. When I saw that, it all suddenly came crashing down, that this wasn’t, as I up until then had thought it was, just about celebrities.
(The scale of the phone hacking) didn’t actually come out until the Dowlers had a very public campaign. But it shouldn’t take a public campaign by the parents of a murdered schoolgirl to make the police act, let alone the newspapers. I mean, the police are meant to be protecting us.
At that time, I thought that that there were proper ways of getting it done and that was through telling News International, through telling the police. Now I accept that there has to be an element of campaigning. And it took me a long time to get there because I just thought that they would do something about what was clearly lawbreaking. I thought that telling the police would be enough. Maybe that’s my naivete.
Rod Tiffen: What would you say about the performance of the police and perhaps about the prosecution service?
Charlotte Harris: Shocking. It shouldn’t have taken civil actions. I wrote letter after letter to the police on behalf of my clients. Many of those clients now did turn out to be victims and I had received the most ridiculous responses.
We said is there any information on Leslie Ash/Chapman because we suspect her phone was intercepted? And the police wrote back and they said, ‘Well, there’s some bits of paper. They’ve got her numbers on it and her account number but you can’t see them and it doesn’t mean that she was hacked.’
And she had to go for a… disclosure order pre-action which cost her 18,000 pounds which, thankfully, she’s recovered. She shouldn’t have had to pay that. The police simply should have said, ‘This is what’s happened’.
The police were meant to be protecting us. This is not to let the newspapers off the hook; they are currently an unregulated bunch, commercial, censored by their own proprietors, and that’s a free press. So my expectations of them are, you have to say, lower. I think that they have obligations, I really do, but the police’s (performance) I’m upset about it.
Rod Tiffen: How would you explain police behaviour at that time?
Charlotte Harris: I think there was a long history of a relationship between the press, and maybe particularly News International, and the police, in terms of leaking of information. I think it had all got terribly casual and out of hand.
I think that the iron triangle that was the very powerful press, the Murdoch press, their relationship with Parliament, and their relationship with MPs, and then the relationship with the police, meant that somewhere there was formed a kind of strange institutional narcissism that made them feel that they were, in some ways, above the law.
Rod Tiffen: I notice that you were subjected to two periods of surveillance. At least one of these seems to have been on the direct recommendation of News International solicitors.
Charlotte Harris: I am somewhat creeped out by the fact that these things were on order whilst I was writing what I thought were quite sensible letters.
Having found out about it once the scandal had emerged, it was oddly reassuring because when you are told by the other side for years that you’re wrong, that you are barking up the wrong tree, that you are simply promoting yourself, and that this has (only) got to do with celebrities.
And then you find out, all within the space of a few weeks, that actually it’s not celebrities only, it is victims of crime, and their families, and murdered schoolchildren, and that you weren’t wrong, and that they did know about it, and that they put you under surveillance to see what they could find to stop you from doing it.
It did rather prove that I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree after all.
Rod Tiffen: Do you think civil cases from now on will become less important?
Charlotte Harris: I think we’ve done our job.
I think the next thing will be what happens to the police, what happens to those who have been accused? And what happens in terms of the outcome of [the Leveson inquiry]? What will the press do next, whether they’re independently regulated or whether they continue to be self-regulated, how will they behave?