Evidence continues to build in support of the contention that phone-hacking, and the illegal obtaining of information, are near-universal in the press media.

(l to r)Watt, Gallagher, the Barclays, Coulson, Brooks, Murdoch, Mohan

The names of high-profile Telegraph journalists like Holly Watt and editor Tony Gallagher have been disappearing from Facebook of late. And it seems to be Telegraph policy now that on the info site Journalisted, articles written prior to 2010 are not featured. It all feels a bit Winston Smith and Ministry of Truth – although it may of course simply be the tendency of those who pry not to want the same medicine back: Julian Assange is the best contemporary example of this.

But for suspicious sniffers like The Slog, it also looks a little like track-covering. Now that illegally invasive reporting is the subject of sudden zero-tolerance, a number of titles in Fleet Street are like so many Nazis with Jewish grandparents, busily starting bonfires with their birth certificates. What no amount of deletion online can do, however, is remove physical traces and Google references. And the biggest smell (from the gun smoking somewhere as yet unknown) is the 2006 Privacy Commission Report. As already posted here, it lists quite clearly the use – on a truly grand scale – of every shade of Glenn Mulcaire by national press titles in 2006. The snooping sector may now be a bust, but back then it was booming like a Calgary gold town.

At that time, there were 958 uses of them at the Daily Mail – nearly three a day – 802 at the Sunday People, 681 at the Daily Mirror, and 266 at the Mail on Sunday. It is entirely possible that every last one had an address in Baker Street and thought hacking was something to do with jackets. But it’s extremely unlikely.

Thus it is not inconceivable that, among the 1,184 uses by 91 users working for Mail Group in 2006, some of them transferred on the overcrowded banana boat to the Torygraph in the ensuing five years.

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Ever since the elevation of Tony Gallagher to the editorship of the Daily Telegraph, the paper’s scoop rate has leapt upwards. Which is fascinating given that, during Gallagher’s stint as a senior newsroom presence at the Mail, the aforementioned usage of Mulcaire clones also leapt beyond the reach of other newspapers.

After all, most of the Gallagher Telegraph scoops have, it has to be said, been the result of marks not knowing what was happening to them.

Vince Cable, for instance, had no idea that the giggling coquette who called herself his constituent was none other than Journalist of the Year nominee Holly Watt. Perhaps Lord Young – fired after he had a private lunch with the Telegraph’s Whitehall editor Christopher Hope – may not have grasped that his every word would be repeated – who can tell? And before that – soon after an Election result not to the Barclay Brothers liking – we were all astonished by the speed with which Liberal Democrat David Laws was hounded from office for being a closet queer unacceptable to a man who had lied about an expenses claim in order to spare his parents the knowledge that he was homosexual.

None of this is about phone-hacking. Rather, the stories have been cases of (and this is purely my own personal observation) misrepresentation – of identity, situation, and motive respectively. But the case of teacher Philip Lawrence’s killer Learco Chindamo is something different. Because the Telegraph’s reporting of it potentially involved inside information obtained from police officers.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the Parliamentary Select Committee grilling of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) of Newscorp. It was featured on Channel Four’s recent Dispatches programme about abuse of journalistic free speech, and shows perhaps the most blatant example I’ve ever seen of an older head (Coulson) rushing in to stop Rebekah hanging herself in answer to a question about paying policemen for information – an action that is unequivocally illegal.

Now consider this: the Telegraph’s Chindamo story of 24th November 2010 opened as follows:

‘The 30 year-old was being questioned by police last night on suspicion of robbery, and is expected to be recalled to prison for the potential breach of his licence’.

No other Fleet Street title had the story on that day – it really was ‘a scoop’. But how was it obtained? From where did the news of his arrest come – and how did the Telegraph know so much about what would happen next?

Was a  Metropolitan Police officer paid to furnish that information?

Even asking this question feels to me (and will to hundreds of other newshounds too) like the ultimate in naivety: how the Hell else do people think newspapers steal the march on competitors?

Yet like it or not, the UK press pack is asking its own UK readers to believe that obtaining information by nefarious means is a rare event undertaken by rogue hacks.

Bollocks. Hacks always have and – hopefully – always will work to ensure that they bend rules and muscle their way through the competition to unearth secrets in the public interest.

But that principle is precisely what’s at stake here. Have the rules (and what the public interest really is) been stretched beyond breaking point of late – as part of our ethical decline as a nation – to the point where the mantra remains, “Anything goes – just don’t get caught”?

The vast majority of Brits with an iota of discernment and common sense would answer, without hesitation, “Yes”.

Nobody – and I really mean n0body – has within their heart a greater detestation of Rupert Murdoch and everything he stands for than The Slog. Compared to me, Vince cable is a paragon of objectivity on the issue.

But it is blind and hypocritical in the extreme to suggest that the cancer of sharp information-gathering practice is something restricted to one Newscorp title, or Newscorp as a group, or journalism – or indeed any walk of life where information is power. The following extract from an email received by me is representative of many others:

‘I can’t tell you the name of my bosses because they’d know immediately I’d told you. But everything they do – share purchases, takeover deals, local government negotiations – is based on illegally hacked information. I can’t sleep at nights for thinking about it’.

I cannot believe Assistant Met Commissioner Sue Akers believes that the task of uncovering lawless trawling of information is going to stop at the News of the World. But it will be interesting to see if she is allowed to follow her instincts, and smoke out other shadowy figures in the media world – in a bid to protect the privacy of those citizens in whose interests she is supposed to act.

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Postscript

Ever since late 2009, we’ve been hearing stories and seeing Telegraph Group releases saying that its star curmudgeon Simon Heffer ‘will be returning to a major new role, following his University sabbatical, during January 2011′. January has come and gone – as has February – and still Heffer has no role. Now, I learn, he has extended his sabbatical.

Is it that Heffer is no longer wanted by the Mailmen who have taken over at the Barclay Brothers’ press flagship? This would be odd, as Simon Heffer’s column continues to get massive hits and long comment threads: he is that rare animal, a respected but polarising columnist.

Or is it, perhaps, that the ‘standards’ upon which he is (rightly) so insistent at the Telegraph continue to worry him? Telegraph Group CEO Murdoch MacLennan remains close to the young buffer: it seems they shoot at avian targets together. They remain, I’m told, a mutual admiration society. But Heffer is still perhaps uncertain as to whether it would be wise to go back on board.

Simon’s admiration doesn’t stretch to the spikey and often unpleasant Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher. (See Slogs passim). And it could be – one can’t be entirely sure – that he is anxious about finding himself, perhaps, one day soon bespattered by a sh*t storm that lies potentially just below the paper’s horizon.

I offer one final, fresh example of odd behaviour by the Telegraph. Over the last 36 hours, I have noticed this: every time Prince Andrew has been described as ‘worried’ about his role as a trade envoy – or Cameron has been described as being told to ‘get a grip’ about the issue – the online edition has not allowed comments. The more shrill the paper becomes about it, the more suspicious I become of Gallagher’s compulsive desire to bury the Prince’s reputation.

Only time will tell. Stay tuned.