Witch Hunt

Burn The Witch!!!

Oh she looks the part with the wild red hair and defiant demeanour.  And the Kabbalesque spelling of her name doesn’t help.  Nor does being a woman in a ‘man’s job’.

And now Rebekah Brooks stands before us accused in dabbling in the dark arts of ‘phone hacking’, a magic we barely understand but somehow we know is immoral.  And worst of all she consorts with, nay is supported by, the devil Murdoch himself.  But don’t worry.  To save us she has the full host of the holier-than-us expense-scandal revenging parliamentarians ranged against her.  She even has the hoards of her former media bretheren screaming hysterically and pointing at her as if that will do anything to cover their own culpability.  Sounds familiar?  This is a witch hunt, this is The Crucible, this is Salem.

Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible retold the story of the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 when over twenty people were killed by an overzealous god fearing town.  It was also an allegory of Macarthy’s search for communists through the Committee on Un-American Activities.  In the play the villagers of Salem become obsessed with the notion that the girls of the village are being possessed by the devil and have become witches.  Everybody points the finger at everybody else, petty scores are settled, deals are made, land of the accused is grabbed, and the puritan church elders come in hard to dish out their biblical justice and strengthen their grip as the moral power not to be challenged.

I have no love for the News Of the World, nor for invasive journalism, but I have never met a journalist, who cut his or her teeth in news gathering, who hasn’t wondered whether they’ve overstepped the line of privacy at some point, whichever newspaper they worked for.  Personally I will never forget Dirk Borgarde’s rage when I was working for the Daily mail and I accidentally walked right into his flat – having sneaked in to the lift of his apartment block to try and get an interview.  I had assumed that there would be a door between lift and living room.  There wasn’t.  Every interview I conducted as a journalist I would ask questions that would pry further than I was comfortable asking – but if the celebrity rewarded me with some news that others had dared not ask for, it was news, it was payday, it was what readers bought the paper for and in that it was worth the embarrassment.

And there’s the rub.  We read the papers because we’re nosy, we literally pay them to be nosy for us, we pay for them to pry and tell.  And we love it.  The News Of The World has long been the highest circulation paper in the News International canon.  Even George Orwell in his seminal essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’ recognised its superlative taste for scandal, he described an ideal traditional Sunday afternoon: “You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World.”  He then decries how unsensational murders have become since the NoW’s  hay day when they would dish the dirt on the likes of Dr Crippen.

The ‘phone hacking’ scandal has rumbled on for months now making little impact.  This has been mainly becasue its victims were pretty unsympathetic; celebrities and desperate politicians whining about invasion of privacy when we all know that if you court publicity you can’t complain when it bites you back.  This all changed a few days ago with the revelation that the NoW ‘hacked’ murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone and, apparently, deleted messages.  If true that’s pretty terrible.  But thankfully, realistically, it did not affect the outcome of the hunt nor the conviction of Levi Bellfield.  But it is worth asking: why would NoW delete messages anyway?  Unless it was a terrible accident.  But, it would seem that the messages had already been noted by the police.

Rebekah’s News of the World is also accused of having the numbers of 7/7 bombing victims and dead soldiers from Afganistan.

What?  That’s a crime?  I’ve got hundreds of telephone numbers of people who were parts of news stories.  Many I never ended up talking to.  Better investigate me and every other journo who once worked in Fleet Street.

Just how are we supposed to think that news gathering happens?  Why have we always called journalists ‘hacks’? Are we expecting investigative journalists to just sit in the press room and wait for the official police line – the same one spun by the incorruptable, unbiased, pure white policemen (literally/figuratively) who were being bribed £100,000 a year by the News Of The World itself?  So the News of the World was in possession of the telephone numbers of people who were part of news stories.  Excuse me but – big fucking deal.

The reason why I keep putting the words ‘phone hacking’ in quotes is because whatever the NoW was doing, it wasn’t phone hacking.  At worst they have been ‘answer machine hacking’ though that doesn’t sound quite so sexy. Let us be clear, they are not accused of bugging or tapping  phones, nor using recievers to pick up mobile conversations like the notorious Charles and Camilla ‘tampon’ pillow talk.  They rang people up when they weren’t at home.  In my book the ringing of an answer machine and then dialing in the standard access codes that ship with all answer machines when people have been too lazy to change them, isn’t exactly hi-tech enough to really constitute ‘hacking’.  So NoW ‘hacks’ were ‘answer maching accessing’… and in doing so I’m not even sure I can find the part of the data protection act that they compromised… and neither could the private investigator who did this.  Unethical, possibly, illicit, undoubtedly, illegal… hmm.

Let’s see.  So hypothetically… I ring my wife’s answerphone and accidentally press 000* as I fidget whilst waiting to leave my message as she drones on about not being there, and then I hear her boyfriend setting up their next motel assignation, and then I use that information to instigate a divorce.  – I’m in the wrong and she sues me for ‘illegal’ ‘phone hacking’?  Blimey.

But, my dear Salemites, however naughty Rebekah and the NoW have been, this is the Governement at their most opportunistic.  They will undoubtedly use this to tighten privacy laws, none of which will help the likes of Milly Dowler’s parents and all to protect their own sorry arses from appearing in full pimply colour on the front pages of the redtops.  They will rush through new laws on the back of this to further curb investigative journalism until it is unable to investigate without telling everybody that that’s what’s happening.  But lets remember – for every investigation that has overstepped the mark there are hundreds that have put the world to rights.  What if Panorama had had to inform everybody in the abusive carehome in Bristol that that they were filming them and could they please sign a ‘release form’?  The abuse would still be going on now.  What if the Telegraph had had to ask the government permission to publish their personal duck house and moat cleaning receipts?  The abuse would still be going on now.

So please stop and think before you stand and point hysterically.  Yes journalism often lacks scruples.  But better to have an effective opposition to the power-mongers even if it sometimes get’s too big for it’s boots than to have none at all.  With each new Government curb on independent journalism we lumber slowly once more towards a world of fact-free opinion, totalitarianism and unanswerable potentates.  Invasive journalism is just one of the prices we pay for an open democracy.  I have never met Rebekah Brooks and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to take on a woman who floored ‘hard man’ (ahem) Ross Kemp, but I sure as hell know that she isn’t a witch, that disposing of her will not bring sanity and respect to the world’s privacy.  But this I do know, if we all stand to accuse her, we stand to lose our freedom of information and our rights to free speech.

I could kiss you my ol' cobber.


Oh… and if Cameron thinks this will do anything to rein in the power of the media imperium, he better think again.  Now Murdoch has closed the NoW – my heart goes out to the journalists at that paper – I have no sympathy for the devil but this is hard business and Murdoch has bigger fish to fry.  If he gets rid of a title – he reduces his monopoly position in his bid to dominate the media with his BskyB deal.

So Murdoch comes out of this on top again, he has offered the head of journalism to the Government on a plate, just when he needs friends in government.  It makes you wonder who has been getting this information out there.  You can’t beat Beelzebub… nor his flame-haired witch bride.  But I guess we could try burning them…



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