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John Whittingdale MP

John Whittingdale MP

It seemed inevitable that the maverick and totally unlawful behavior of the News International journalists involved in the illegal hacking of mobile phones would draw the most headlines following the publication on 24 February of the Culture Select Committee’s report on press standards, privacy and libel.

Battle lines were clearly drawn the day before at the press briefing held in committee room 6 at the Palace of Westminster.  Shortly after the report had been presented by committee chair MP John Whittingdale, a journalist who I assume was from News International, was laying the foundations for the next day’s headlines in the Murdoch press, accusing MPs of unfairness and pursuing cheap party political points.

However, the committee stood behind the report’s findings and condemned ‘the collective amnesia’ and ‘deliberate obfuscation’ by News of the World executives who gave evidence to them. Journalist Nick Davies asked why the Press Complaints Commission handling of the phone hacking had been so poor. Whittingdale replied that the PCC just did not carry out a proper investigation into this serious matter and that in future it should be far more pro-active! (It would be worth investigating just how long illegal hacking has been going on – 10 – 15 years – and has it really stopped?)

Thing must be bad, because never before has a parliamentary body recommended that the PCC should have powers to fine its members where it believes that the departure from the Code of Practice is serious enough to warrant such a penalty. In more serious cases, suspending publication of the offending publication for one issue could be imposed. However, in public statements made within hours of the report being published, the PCC does not seem to share this approach.

The report with over 570 agreed paragraphs and 167 pages (that’s just volume 1) is the longest, most complex and wide –ranging inquiry undertaken by the committee. It was some eight months in the making. Although proposals on English libel reform are currently being considered by a working group set up by Jack Straw in December 2009, it’s just not clear how many of the committee’s recommendations will see the light of day, with an election just a couple of months away and little enthusiasm for change either by the PCC and much of the newspaper industry – especially those in the Murdoch camp. So will it continue to be business as usual?