Chris Bryant's speech in phone hacking debate
Chris Bryant MP, 06/07/2011
Category: House of Commons
I beg to move, that this House has considered the matter of whether there should be a public inquiry into the phone hacking at the News of the World; and the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Service between 2006 and 2011.
At 8.50 am tomorrow, it will be six years since the London bombings, which saw 52 people murdered and 700 injured. Today we hear that the police are investigating whether the mobile phones of several of those who lost family members in those attacks were hacked by the News of the World. One such family member spoke—very movingly, I thought—on the “Today” programme this morning. Another has been in touch with me and there may be several others. In addition, I am told that the police are looking not just at Milly Dowler’s phone and the phones of the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, but at the case of Madeleine McCann and of 15-year-old Danielle Jones, who was abducted and murdered in Essex in 2001 by her uncle, Stuart Campbell.
The charge sheet is even longer, unfortunately. I am told that the News of the World also hacked the phones of police officers, including those investigating the still unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan. This is particularly worrying considering the collapse of the long-delayed trial of the private investigator, Jonathan Rees, who also worked for newspapers, earlier this year. Scandalously, it also seems that the News of the World targeted some of those police officers who were, at various times, in charge of the investigation into the News of the World itself. We can only speculate, Mr Speaker, on why they would want to do that.
These are not just the amoral actions of some lone private investigator tied to a rogue News of the World reporter; they are the immoral and almost certainly criminal deeds of an organisation that was appallingly led and had completely lost sight of any idea of decency or shared humanity. The private voicemail messages of victims of crime should never, ever have become a commodity to be traded between journalists and private investigators for a cheap story and a quick sale, and I know that the vast majority of journalists in this country would agree with that.
If we want to understand the complete moral failure here, we need only listen to the words of Mr Glenn Mulcaire himself:
“Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results. I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically. But, at the time, I didn’t understand that I had broken the law at all”.
To be honest, the ethics are the big issue here, just as much as whether the law was broken. The journalists and the private investigators should be ashamed of what happened. But so, too, should those who ran the newspaper. It is simply no excuse to say they did not know what was going on. Managerial and executive negligence is tantamount to complicity in this case. I believe that if Rebekah Brooks had a single shred of decency, she would now resign. God knows, if a Minister were in the spotlight at the moment, she would be demanding their head on a plate.
Let me be clear, though. The News of the World is not the only magician practising the dark arts. In 2006, the Information Commissioner produced a devastating report, “What price privacy now?”, which detailed literally hundreds—in fact, thousands—of dubious or criminal acts by journalists or agents of national newspapers: illegally obtaining driving licence details, illegal criminal records or vehicle registration searches, telephone reverse traces and mobile telephone conversions. He listed 1,218 instances at the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday alone, 802 at The People and—I say sadly as a Labour Member—681 at the Daily Mirror. Earlier this year, the new Information Commissioner revealed that many patients’ records held by the NHS are far from secure from the prying eyes of journalists. That is the most private information possible about members of the public.
This issue is not just about what went on at the News of the World; it is also about the behaviour of the Metropolitan police. In the course of the limited investigation of 2006, which led to the conviction of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman, the police secured a vast amount of information. They could have—and, I believe, should have—interrogated that information so that it became evidence. They could have approached all those affected. They could have contacted the mobile phone companies to ensure their customers were better protected. Unfortunately, they did none of those things.
It pains me to say this as well, but the honest truth is that a lot of lies have been told to a lot of people. When police officers tell lies or at least half-truths to Ministers of the Crown so that Parliament ends up being misled, I think it amounts to a major constitutional issue for us to face. I hope that there will end up being a full investigation into that element and that we will come to the truth, but at the moment what hangs around is a very dirty smell. We need the Metropolitan police to be trusted—not just in London but across the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why we need to fight on this issue.
Did the reason that nothing happened have anything to do with the closeness between the Metropolitan police and the News of the World? After all, we know for a fact that Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who was in charge of the investigation into the News of the World, now works for News International. We know that senior officers were wined and dined by senior News of the World executives at the very time, and occasionally on the very day, when they were making key decisions about whether any further investigation should proceed against that organisation. And we know that the News of the World paid police officers for information.
I say that categorically because, on 11 March 2003, in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I asked Rebekah Wade, as she then was—Rebekah Brooks, as she now is—whether she had paid police officers for information. She said:
“We have paid the police for information in the past.”
“And will you do it in the future?”
She replied: “It depends.” Andy Coulson, who was sitting next to her, said:
“We operate within the code and within the law and if there is a clear public interest then we will.”
“It is illegal for police officers to receive payments.”
Mr Coulson said:
“No. I just said, within the law.”
I do not believe that it is possible to pay police officers “within the law.” That is suborning police officers, it is corruption, and it should stop.
In April this year, Rebekah Brooks was asked by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs to clarify exactly what she had meant. She replied:
“As can be seen from the transcript, I was responding to a specific line of questioning on how newspapers get information. My intention was simply to comment generally on the widely-held belief that payments had been made in the past to police officers. If, in doing so, I gave the impression that I had knowledge of any specific cases, I can assure you that this was not my intention.”
[Laughter.] I see that the Attorney-General himself is smiling.
Even more worryingly, as we discovered only last night, News International has handed over copies of documents that appear to show that former editor Andy Coulson authorised a series of payments to police officers running into tens of thousands of pounds. That is News International saying, “Yeah but no but yeah but…” . The truth is, however, that News International was doing it, and cannot be allowed to get away with it. I know that the News of the World seems to be hanging Andy Coulson out to dry, but surely the buck stops at the top, and that is the chief executive.
I know that there are those who argue that there cannot be a public inquiry during an ongoing investigation—and I noted the Prime Minister’s earlier comments, when he seemed to vacillate in relation to when that process could or could not start—but I think they are wrong. Indeed, I consider it vital for the police investigation to be supplemented by a public inquiry. First, some of the issues that need to be addressed may not be criminal, but they do strike at the heart of what an ethical code for the media should look like in this country. Secondly, although I have confidence in the officers who are conducting the Weeting investigation, I fear that the rug could be pulled from under their feet at any moment, and there is no certainty about when their investigations will be completed. By the time they are done, many of those involved may have left the scene or, more worryingly, shredded the evidence—or, of course, discovered selective amnesia.
That is why it is vital that an inquiry be set up as soon as possible and as soon as practicable, led by a judge with full powers to summon witnesses who must give evidence under oath. Of course the inquiry should not sit in public until the investigations are complete—I hope that that answers the question asked by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—but an astute judge can easily manage the relationship between a police investigation and an inquiry, prepare evidence, and secure witnesses without compromising any criminal investigation or prosecution.
I am confident that the Prime Minister agrees with that. After all—as was mentioned earlier—a year ago today he announced an inquiry, to be led by Sir Peter Gibson, into allegations of the torture of detainees. He appointed two other members to it, and said that he hoped it would start by the end of last year and be completed within a year. Indeed, he expressly pointed out that he was setting up the inquiry despite the fact that criminal investigations were still ongoing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Lord Chancellor—and Foreign Secretary, and holder of many other posts besides—has received a letter about the Gibson inquiry which makes the position very clear. It states:
“The Inquiry has not yet started as we are still awaiting the conclusion of two related police investigations into the Security Service and SIS.”
None the less, says the letter, “preparatory matters” are in hand. That is precisely what I believe should happen in this case.
Chris Bryant: I give way to the Attorney-General, in the hope that he will make the same point as well.
The Attorney-General: The hon. Gentleman has taken the wind out of my sails in one respect. I was going to agree with him that it was possible to set up an inquiry. However, I am sure he will appreciate that it becomes extremely difficult for an inquiry to take any evidence while criminal proceedings may still be taking place. That is obviously one reason why the Gibson inquiry has not yet begun its work, which it was hoped would start at the end of last year. I certainly note the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the possibility of setting up an inquiry, but it may not make much progress until the criminal investigations are over.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the Attorney-General for the way in which he has expressed himself. That is, in fact, a big concession. I think it important for us to make progress, not least because I think that the police themselves would like the sword of Damocles to hang over their necks, so that they know they must proceed and proceed apace. Also, when it comes to an inquiry—especially in this case—they sometimes have to look through the historiography of all the different documentation, and it is important to ensure that that is garnered now, privately.
I see no reason—other than a lack of will, or fear of what it might unveil—for the Government not to set up an inquiry, establish its terms of reference, and appoint its membership immediately. It is not that I want to rush to summary justice, but I do want to ensure that justice ends up being done. Documents could be seized now, and material could be tied down. Of course, many elements of the form that the inquiry would take need to be hammered out, and I suggest that the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition could have fruitful discussions to ensure that that is possible.I also believe that we need a public inquiry because Parliament—which has conducted its own Select Committee inquiries under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—has been systematically lied to throughout the process. The list of lies is, I am afraid, endless.
News International claimed that the phone hacking only started in 2004, but we now know for certain of instances relating to 2003 and 2002. News International claimed that it had run a full internal investigation. It is patently clear that if it did, it hid stuff from the police, and that otherwise it did not. News International claimed that it had always helped the police, but only private civil cases pursued by some brave individuals have forced its hand.
The police claimed that they had notified all the victims, and that specifically named people were not victims. We now know that not all the victims were contacted, and that some people who had expressly been told that they were not victims were victims. I think that even Assistant Commissioner John Yates now accepts that he has misled Parliament because he briefed The Independent on Sunday that he was furious at the “inadequate” and “unprofessional” research of those beneath him with the result that some of his public statements at the time were at odds with what has subsequently emerged. I am sorry, but leadership does not involve the leader being rude about their staff; it involves them taking responsibility for what they say to Parliament, and if they have misled Parliament, they should resign.
Many people out in the wider world may not care much whether Parliament is lied to—although I think we should—but this House came into existence to hold what was then the sole power in the land, the Crown and then the Government, to account. Where we now fail often, and sometimes miserably, is in holding the other powers in the land to account. We must do that properly from now on, and this is one such instance. We politicians have colluded for far too long with the media: we rely on them, we seek their favour, and we live and we die politically because of what they write and what they show, and sometimes that means we lack the courage or the spine to stand up when wrong has occurred.
We have let the Press Complaints Commission delude us into thinking that it is genuinely independent and has a bite that everybody is frightened of. Sometimes, we may even have fallen for the threats that have been made when we have spoken out. I know of several Members who have led this debate who have received threats.
We have let one man have far too great a sway over our national life. At least Berlusconi lives in Italy, but Murdoch is not resident in this country; he does not pay tax here and has never appeared before a Select Committee of this House. No other country would allow one man to garner four national newspapers, to be the second largest broadcaster, and to have a monopoly on sports rights and first-view movies. America, the home of the aggressive entrepreneur, does not allow that, and we should not.
Of course the proposed takeover of BSkyB should be put on ice while the police investigation is ongoing. The executive and non-executive directors have completely failed in their legal duty to tackle criminality in the company in question, and it must surely be in doubt, at least, whether some of them are fit and proper people to run a media company.
There are many other questions. Who is paying Glenn Mulcaire’s legal fees now? Is News International paying them? Was Clive Goodman paid off handsomely when he came out of prison? What did Rebekah Wade, Andy Coulson and Les Hinton know, and when did they know it? Why has so much material suddenly appeared in News International’s archives? I do not want to be partisan but there is one remaining question: did the Prime Minister ever ask Andy Coulson what really went on at the News of the World before he appointed him to work, on the taxpayers’ bill, at No. 10 Downing street?
I hope that those who broke the law at the News of the World and those who covered it up will be brought to justice. I hope the Metropolitan police’s now tarnished reputation will be restored. I hope the victims, especially the ordinary members of the public who were targeted, will get justice as well. I hope we will all get to know the truth, but even more importantly than all of this, I hope that the British media, who for so long have had a worldwide renown for craftsmanship, for tough intelligence and for robust investigative journalism, will rediscover their true vocation: to bring the truth to light truthfully, honestly, and legally. None of that will happen until we establish the whole unvarnished truth, and that, I believe, needs a public inquiry, and it needs it now.