Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 27 November 2012

Love me like you used to do.

WHAT would you do if you could turn back time?

Ban Cher from singing about it, maybe. Right a wrong, say something you never did, stop a loved one dying.

Me, I'd go back to the point where I could find the individuals primarily responsible for causing the phone-hacking scandal (and who I won't name, because their convictions should be water-tight if and when they happen), tie them up in a basement somewhere and explain, before they start, why they should behave better.

I'd point out the hundreds of journalists who lost their jobs for something they'd never done; the thirty thousand or so print journalists in local and national papers fighting to restore reputations all tainted by association; and the fact people are threatening closing time at the Last Chance Saloon.

Perhaps I need to have more things in my life outside work, but I'm not a person who indulges in personal regrets and if I could just persuade those few irks to do different perhaps it would help improve millions of lives rather than just mine.

If they had been more thoughtful, we would never have heard again from Paul McMullan, a man who left Fleet Street in the same year I arrived in it and was regarded as something of an unusual specimen even by the oldest hands with the inkiest souls.

If they had been better, Milly Dowler's family could be angry with Levi Bellfield for killing their daughter, for his defence barrister for dragging their sex lives through a public courtroom, and with Surrey Police which mishandled the murder inquiry from day one, briefed journalists the father was responsible, and failed to investigate the News of the World in 2002 when its staff told officers they had listened to her voicemail.

We could have been spared the sight of Jonathan King being listened to by one of the nation's top judges as though he were a reasonable man instead of a pervert sentenced to seven years after exploiting his celebrity to bugger young boys.

We would not have had to listen to politicians in search of votes furiously demanding an inquiry, then before it's even published a report furiously denouncing it after realising it might suggest something which would cost them votes.

And more importantly than anything else, the 20 to 30 million people who read a newspaper in this country every day would not face the prospect of those newspapers needing to be officially approved in some respect before they're allowed to read them, something which at its unimaginable worst could damage and harm every single person, business, and institution in the country.

But we have had all those things, and there's not much we can do about them now. Campaigners against the Press demand and get personal meetings with the Prime Minister to fight their case, foreign journalists are pointing out the Press in other countries follows our model and any regulation will be seized on by tyrants, and just about everyone gets to shout the odds apart from people like me.

Oh, editors get to write leader columns and columnists get to pontificate. I mean your average foot-soldier - the person who is not management, not an award-winning pet of the boss, just a hack who gets out of bed every day to do something others dislike because they think someone ought to - doesn't get a say.

A normal journalist, whether it's local or national newspapers, has to have a degree of anonymity if they are to do their job properly. They need to sit unobtrusively in council meetings, pubs, car parks, and courtrooms. They need to take note without being noted themselves, and you can't do that if you're on the evening news fending off Steve Coogan.

So it's down to the figureheads to earn their money and do the speaking for all of us, and a few have. There are others who can't be bothered, perhaps because they're happy to take the money and glory of an industry they do not wish to admit being part of, and perhaps because they're so far up their own ivory tower they can't see what it's like for the plebs.

I cannot speak for others: but I'll tell you what I reckon.

I reckon the Leveson Inquiry was a mis-timed bit of theatre which was supposed to look at the culture and ethics of an entire trade but shone a light mainly on the bits which were old, screwy and defunct. I reckon it accepted opinions as fact, didn't ask the right questions and I'm pretty certain several people misled it.

I reckon most of us, journalists and civilians alike, wanted an inquiry which would explain how and why Milly's phone, among thousands of others, was hacked. Personally I'd like to see the journalists who commissioned the work, the person who did the deed, the phone companies which enabled it, the police who failed to investigate it, each hauled up in front of Robert Jay and torn a new one.

That didn't happen, because for the first time I can think of the inquiry was held before the associated court cases. That mis-timing reduced Leveson to looking at everything but the one, glaring mistake which caused such public disgust we got the inquiry in the first place.

The court cases are taking their sweet time, so perhaps this was the quickest way; but it is inarguable that because of the speed at which it was organised we may never get the answers we all want.

Three witnesses from phone companies spoke about a few dozen hacking victims and they've now improved their security. But for how long did they know security was flawed, how come the police say there's thousands of hacking victims, and how much have they been sued for? Private detectives told Leveson they need regulation, and the report Surrey Police is delayed until at least the end of the year and maybe 2014.

Some evidence was honestly given, but nevertheless mistaken. Kate McCann talked about the upsetting experience of being driven through a scrum of photographers outside her home after her daughter Madeleine disappeared. She said they had intentionally tapped on the car windows with their camera lenses, frightening her two other children, to get them to look up and snatch a picture of tear-stained faces.

I don't doubt that was the impression Kate got, but as most photographers are freelance and buy their own kit which costs more than £20,000, they're unlikely to smack a moving car with it.

I've never seen a snapper treat their camera with anything but tender loving care. I've seen scrums where the blokes at the back surge forward and the bloke in front get shoved against a car, and it inevitably leads to a smashed lens and a very angry photographer. Scrums, when you've got police press officers and your own media liaison to keep everyone in line, shouldn't happen. If they did there are more than just the snappers to blame for those tear-stained children.

Charlotte Church spoke about how she came to distrust all her friends, and that stories about her could "not have come from any other area" but phone-hacking.

When she said that I was sitting next to a pal who worked on a different newspaper. We looked at each other, laughed, and shared the names of half a dozen of Charlotte's friends who sold stories to hacks. One even sold a yarn about how she was feeding fake stories to friends to see if they could be trusted. Anyone who did hack her phone was just throwing time and money down the drain.

Ann Diamond said she'd been told to watch out for eavesdropping bugs in bunches of flowers delivered by journalists after the cot death of her son Sebastian in 1991. I'm sure she was told that, but in 1991 the battery pack required to run a listening device for more than ten minutes would have been the size of a house brick. The bunches of flowers were given to express sympathy and try to get a story, not hide something which would have weighed half a stone.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers announced she had decided for herself what public interest was, and the senior police officers who socialised with newspaper executives were not asked about the one thing senior officers generally do, in my experience, which is exploit those links to corrupt the truth.

It was originally reported George Osborne would not be cross-examined. When he did appear he was not asked about his links to a dominatrix which appeared on the front of two newspapers. A prime opportunity to ask a politician about his relationship with the Press and exposure of his private life which were the principle areas Leveson was supposed to be looking at; but for some reason no-one did. Isn't that odd?

They're all minor points perhaps, but when they add up it formed a misrepresentation which, had a journalist been responsible for it, would have called for a clarification at the very least.

A few glitches aside, the inquiry could have had an argument about what it is or is not reasonable to report about celebrity private lives, the report could outline where privacy ends and secrecy begins, it could resolve what to do about the internet, our 13th century libel laws which mean only the rich can protect their reputations and it could define the public interest.

It bet you it won't do any of those things, which is a shame because if it did it could clean up a lot of mess. But that wasn't the aim - the inquiry was always intended to be a quick bloodletting, kicking the Press while soothing the powerful, with a result which doesn't change too much.

And now we've got everyone mouthing off about what that result should be, before we actually know, and without taking notice of a few basic points.

No extra law could make the hacking of Milly Dowler's voicemail more illegal than it already was.

There is no way that a missing girl, whether in Walton-on-Thames or Portugal, would not get blanket media coverage and the sense of intrusion that involves.

Any British couple made suspects in a foreign country or reported on as suspected killers by a foreign Press will see those claims repeated here like the McCanns did, and any man's personal proclivities announced in a public court of law will become public knowledge just as Bob Dowler's were. And there is no law which can make the loss of your daughter any easier to deal with.

More rules would not make the treatment of Chris Jefferies much different. Police wrongly arrested a short, skinny, older man physically incapable of strangling the tall, athletic girl whose killer they were hunting and held him for three days over New Year when there was no other news.

Several papers broke the law in reporting it in such a way as to make him sound guilty, but others still used his picture and details for days which, as Lord McAlpine claims, even if you are proved innocent leads some people to think you were involved anyway. Pictures and names of people arrested in high-profile murder cases and confirmed by the police cannot be made illegal.

Because of this scandal, we already have better corrections, a more careful Press, and more threats against journalists when they displease people, too.

The only thing more rules would change is that people would be too scared to tell journos things their bosses would rather they didn't. Like leaking details of the phone-hacking inquiry, for example, because with more state control we wouldn't have heard any of this.

More rules about what you can't say can only make it harder to tell the truth. Leveson's aim was not supposed to make that more difficult than it already is.

A friend of mine rang today and said: "Honestly, what a waste of time and money. What's it going to change? We're not all phone-hackers. They should nick the bad ones, bang 'em up, and let the rest of us get on with it. How hard can it be?"

And in the absence of a time machine, I can't see a better option. For you or for me.