The News of the World phone hacking scandal has spiralled out in a dozen different directions.
No wonder. It’s fun to talk about Rupert Murdoch. And for the British Labour Party, it’s exciting to tie David Cameron to the News of the World.
But from a political economy perspective, it’s the role of the London Metropolitan Police in the hacking which should be the most concerning.
That’s because we expect politicians to be craven, and to coddle up to media proprietors. And we expect many journalists to be opportunistic and tasteless. As long ago as the 1730s, Montesquieu was complaining about the immorality of English newspapers.
But we expect – well, require – the police to be lily white.
In a free society, the police are not just any institution. Only they can use force against citizens. The purpose of the police is to prevent crime. There’s no clearer breach of the social contract than police being complicit in criminal activity.
Operation Elveden is the investigation of the Metropolitan Police into officers suspected of aiding the phone hacking. It was sparked by News International documents which mentioned payments to police.
Elveden is being conducted side-by-side with the investigation into the hacking itself, and given similar priority and prominence. Officers from both operations have conducted the few arrests so far.
Some survivors of the 2005 London bombings believe the only way their contact details would have been accessible to News of the World is if survivor lists – full of telephone numbers and addresses – had been leaked by Met officers.
If true, that would suggest some of this scandal’s most ethically egregious violations would not have been possible without the complicity of the Metropolitan Police.
And Operation Elveden has not been the only investigation into police corruption in recent years.
As Graeme McLagan, a former BBC home affairs correspondent, pointed out in The Guardian earlier this month, accusations of inappropriate and corrupt relationships between the police and journalists have been a regular feature of the last decade. In 2002, McLagan was documenting the existence of a private detective agency which funnelled information from corrupt police to News of the World and the Sunday Mirror.
Obscuring these serious issues are a number of sideshows.
The police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson resigned last week because of the “embarrassing” fact he hired a former deputy News of the World editor as a public relations consultant. But, justified or unjustified, that seems to be just a matter of impropriety – the same sort of impropriety which David Cameron must regret for having hired Andy Coulson.
Impropriety may have political significance, but has little policy significance. Bad judgment is not a crime.
Much more important is the statement made by former Assistant Police Commissioner John Yates to the House of Commons committee that “I confidently predict that, as a result of News International disclosures, a very small number of police officers will go to prison for corruption.”
Then there are suggestions that the police failed to adequately pursue the hacking story when it first arose in 2005.
Focusing on the police does nothing to diminish the ethical and criminal seriousness of what News of the World did. Journalists, editors, private investigators, political advisors – anybody who has committed a crime should, and no doubt will, be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law. That’s what a legal system is for.
But a legal system cannot function if its enforcement arm is anything less than scrupulously clean.
It’s not surprising that Australian commentators haven’t focused on police corruption. Scotland Yard doesn’t own two-thirds of our newspapers.
But accusations of phone hacking have spread well beyond News International. Thirty-one separate British newspapers are now under investigation. They’re not all Murdoch’s.
And there has been no serious suggestion anything remotely similar has happened in this country. (If you think The Australian’s antipathy to the Greens is at all like hacking the phones of terror victims, or even vaguely connected, your moral compass is way off.)
Yet Australian politicians and partisans have tried to make the scandal fit an existing set of hobbyhorses – anti-government hostility in News Limited papers, journalistic ethics, and media consolidation. Australia’s political class can be as opportunistic as any tabloid.
Australian commentators can wax lyrical about media ethics and regulation only because we don’t have to face the implications of law-breaking journalists working in tandem with law-breaking cops.
For the public and for the press, police corruption isn’t as thrilling as allegations of widespread criminality in their favourite newspapers.
And hauling the world’s biggest media mogul before a panel of politicians was great theatre.
But it wasn’t Rupert Murdoch’s evidence in front of the House of Commons committee which was most important. It was the police commissioner’s.