Ok, ok, I may have had slow to rubbish to non existent internet access for the last week, but I haven't had my head completely in the sand. I have been itching to write about the scandals which have led to the closure of the News of the World newspaper which publishes its final edition today.
I watched the nightly news bulletins last week horrified at every passing revelation. People should feel confident that messages left on their voicemail are to be heard only by them. In very rare cases, sanctioned by a judge, the State may have the right to intercept or listen to stuff, but the circumstances in which that power is used must be very limited, exceptional and regulated within an inch of its life. This is not a practice which should ever be carried out in the name of journalism, to give a newspaper competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace. What's become clear over the last few years is that there was a time early in this century when the News of the World were using agents to hack people's voicemails. Quality journalism, as carried out by most members of that profession, is rooted in ethical behaviour. To tarnish every reporter, even every tabloid reporter, as a result of what we've seen over the past week would be wrong. Those who were involved in such activity were not journalists. They were criminals, pure and simple.
Within the truly sickening revelations this week that those criminals had hacked into the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the families of those murdered in terrorist attacks or service personnel killed in Afghanistan lay another unpalatable insult. The evidence on which they were based is not brand new. A proper investigation in early 2007 when the then NOTW royal correspondent Clive Goodman was jailed should have elicited most of these facts and the people responsible should then have been identified and brought to justice. We should not have had to wait another 4 years to for this information to be dragged to light.
This week has shone a very strong light into the murky world of inter-relationships between police, press and politician. There are suggestions of payments to the police for information, authorised at senior levels. We all know that virtually every senior Labour and Conservative politician over the past couple of decades has worshipped at the altar of News International, desperate for the electoral endorsement of its powerful tabloids.
Way back in the eighties, every self respecting Labour politician took to the picket lines at Wapping, urging us all to boycott the Murdoch publications. When Tony Blair took over, he decided on a different strategy - that of, to put it bluntly, what Carville and Begala would call "kissing ass". He went after, and won, the endorsement of the Murdoch Empire in 1997 and held it until the General Election last year.
At News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks' wedding in 2009 saw Labour and Tory frontbenchers mingle with the Murdoch family and other Murdoch high fliers. David Cameron even employed Andy Coulson after his resignation as editor of the NOTW, a decision which always highlighted flawed judgement to me. His subsequent resignation as Downing Street Director of Communications earlier this year was almost inevitable.
It's worth pointing out that the Murdoch publications and broadcasts rarely if ever have a good word to say about Liberal Democrats. But then you've never seen Liberal Democrats chase after crumbs from their tables. You get an idea of why from Vince Cable's unguarded comments to the undercover Telegraph journalists last Christmas. At around the same time, David Cameron was socialising with Rebekah Brooks over Christmas and brushing off criticism about it. Was it really right for a serving PM to be seen to be so close to somebody who not only represented a company involved in a media takeover, but about which there were continuing suspicions relating to the phone hacking practices when she was editor of the NOTW? I don't think so.
And for all Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman telling whoever will listen that they want to see a robust enquiry - as Paul at Liberal Burblings has pointed out often to a ridiculous degree, they need to be accountable for the little they did in Government to ensure that the phone hacking affair was properly investigated.
I think it's clear that Vince Cable would have referred the takeover of B Sky B to the Competition Commission. To me that was the right course of action on principle. To have one company with so much media power across broadcast and print media does raise questions and they should be thoroughly investigated. He's no longer in charge of the case, because of his comments. Jeremy Hunt, who is in the driving seat and who was known for a much more Murdoch friendly attitude, should now put a stop to the deal that he has looked set to approve.
The fact that Rebekah Brooks remains on the News International payroll after all that's gone on is the chief, but far from the only, sign that even after all that's happened this week, Murdoch continues to stick two fingers up to the British people. He's powerful and he knows it. There's no real humility from him or his son James. How on earth can they have confidence in someone who supposedly had no clue about what was going on at her own paper? I'd certainly think twice about promoting someone like that. Appointing her to lead an internal investigation in to things she supposedly knew nothing about was a sign of contemptuous attitude to us all. Does Murdoch really think we're stupid?
Even if it transpires that Brooks and Andy Coulson have no legal case to answer, surely the climate they presided over, one in which intense pressure was put on staff to deliver that competitive edge delivered by means of an agressive and abrasive management style, was a contributing factor in what transpired. Yes, people are accountable for their own personal actions, but the environment in which they work, the stress which they suffer as a result of toxic management style has to have some relevance.
My initial reaction when I heard about the closure of the News of the World on Thursday was summed up in this tweet:
"Just checking the news headlines - I see they've got the cosmetics out at News International & Mrs Brooks appears to still have a job."You can't just airbrush years of routine criminal behaviour by shutting down the paper and leaving the same people pulling the strings in the organisation. The people with least power as usual suffer most by the loss of their jobs - although, it may well be that they'll be absorbed into a new Murdoch tabloid venture, a Sunday Sun, perhaps?
In terms of political leadership on this, I'm glad to see that traditional liberal instincts of transparency and fairness have led to Nick Clegg pushing within the Coalition for a meaningful public enquiry into this. Left to David Cameron alone, the scrutiny would have been much weaker. This isn't about political advantage - but I do think it is important that people know that all the way through this, my party has kept Murdoch and his companies at an appropriate length and has behaved entirely properly.
In Scotland, our leader Willie Rennie has got his wooden spoon out and brought Alex Salmond into the mix - questioning whether the First Minister, who enjoyed the endorsement of the Murdoch stable in Scotland, had ever raised phone hacking with them. Willie said:
'Alex Salmond is right to say that the full weight of the law must be used to prosecute those responsible for these dreadful events.
'But Alex Salmond must also come clean about the content of his discussions with News International before he secured the support of the Sun and News of World for the elections in May.
'People will want to know if he raised any concerns about phone hacking when he was negotiating their support.
'Was it a case of no questions asked please just support me? Was he prepared to sacrifice anything to get the endorsement?'Severin Carrell of the Guardian took a look back in April at the potential reasons for the Murdoch stable's about face on Salmond and the SNP, detailing reports of a closer relationship between the First Minister and News International:
I haven't looked very far into this, but I can't find any evidence that Salmond has been particularly bothered by the phone hacking issue prior to this week - when he predictably used the scandal to pick a fight with Westminster on press regulation. Opportunism, much?
For me the best thing that could come out of this scandal is that ordinary people wake up to themselves and take more of an interest in the inter-relationships between the people who hold power in this country, big business, media and politicians and start to realise the dangerous world we're slipping into. We need to question things more, and not just accept what we're told by major corporations and powerful leaders. And we need to understand that even if the phone being hacked belongs to some non entity of a celebrity as an attempt to find out who they may or may not be sleeping with, it matters. We can take a stand on the ethics of our journalists - by refusing to buy what they produce. At the heart of this story is a very human element. People at the worst time of their lives having their privacy violated, having some disreputable character listening in to try to find a unique angle on their grief to profit from.
A free press is an essential part of our democracy - but we as citizens have to play our part in keeping them honest and ethical too. The same with everyone else who holds power. There's talk of politicians having to engage with or connect with people - and that's important. But it's also vital that people properly scrutinise the sort of government, the sort of press, the sort of businesses available to them - and use the power they have to good effect to improve quality and standards within them.