Public Inquiry into Phone Hacking Scandal Continues in London

The World

Marco Werman: The inquiry into phone hacking conducted by Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers continues. The scandal, you’ll recall, started when it emerged that Murdoch’s now closed News of The World tabloid had hacked into the phones of thousands of people. They ranged from politicians to the relatives of killed servicemen and women to the parents of a murdered teenage girl. Now the Leveson Inquiry has expanded to examine the culture, practice and ethics of the press and unlawful conduct within the media. Alan Rusbridger is the editor-in-chief of London’s Guardian newspaper. His paper exposed the phone hacking scandal. Rusbridger says he was surprised by the muted reaction to the story when the Guardian first published it.

Alan Rusbridger: There was a period of about 18 months when we first published it and nobody wanted to know. So what we had was the police coming out and saying that there’s nothing there; the parliament itself I think felt intimidated from taking on Murdoch; the Regulator…we have our Press Regulator in Britain, they came out and said there was nothing wrong and a lot of other journalists just couldn’t see what the story was or, for whatever reason, wouldn’t tackle it. That made me feel very anxious about the sort of democracy of Britain because if the normal checks and balances in society aren’t working because a company feels it has impunity to do what it likes then that is a very alarming state of affairs.

Werman: Do you see this as something that could only happen in the British press?

Rusbridger: There maybe something particular about the British tabloid culture which is unusually aggressive. What had transpired, that Murdoch was doing, was he had the sort of posh papers like The Times and The Sunday Times. He had the broadcasters which made the money. He had these very aggressive tabloids which, in turn, had outsourced the pursuit of people through illegal means in order to get the dirt on them. So, that’s a very toxic combination, but he has the same pattern of ownerships in America and in Australia. I don’t think it would be necessarily a uniquely British phenomenon.

Werman: What about that relationship between journalists and police and politicians? You said that you had London police calling you and asking you not to talk about this. What was that…?

Rusbridger: The Commissioner himself…the Commissioner of Police came to see me. Well, this is what Leveson is looking into at the moment. Last week and this week, he’s having all these policemen in front of him that the judge is doing this inquiry and he’s trying to get at why it was that when there was such compelling evidence of thousands of people who may have been hacked into including Members of the Cabinet, security forces, royalty as well as celebrities and journalists and the victims of crime, why the police did nothing. That, I think speaks to a general coziness and it’s a slightly different issue from the one with politicians which was, politicians felt that they needed Murdoch in order to get elected. They also felt that he was a bad man to upset and that if they didn’t do what he said their private lives might be worked over. That’s why it’s become such a sort of toxic mix of circumstances.

Werman: Oh indeed. Today the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police told the Leveson Inquiry that “the pendulum of police and media relations has swung too far away from openness” in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. Lord Stevens said that police officers are now terrified to speak to the press; perhaps an unintended consequence. Have you seen this happening at The Guardian?

Rusbridger: I think it’s very difficult to get it right. We wouldn’t have been able to do our stories without some unauthorized contacts between the police, but I think the police have to be clear that there’s a difference between unauthorized contacts which good journalism depends on, and bribery.

Werman: How do you think that the Leveson Inquiry will change the way newspapers function in Britain and beyond?

Rusbridger: I think it will make us honest. I think it’s been a big shock to the system to have to go along and account for what we do. I think there will be regulation which I know is an odd idea for Americans but I think we will have regulation that will not inhibit decent journalism. I think these shocking practices, which are no shock to 99% of journalists in Britain, will not happen in the future and, to my mind, that’s a good thing.

Werman: Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of London’s Guardian newspaper, thanks for coming in.

Rusbridger: Thank you very much.

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