Prescott weighs in with demand for wide-ranging enquiry

Some weeks back, rumours began circulating about the Sun having tapped the phones of the Soham double-murder parents. It now transpires that mobiles involved in this and other cases were in fact hacked, although it’s unclear how many Nationals were involved. Reading the prurient sanctimony of those Newscorp pieces on the archive site today was not a pleasant experience.

Today the Guardian has secured an interview with tragi-comic TV actress Leslie Ash, who had botox side effects and then MRSA a few years back. It seems the list of Murdoch intrusions on this occasion included phone numbers for her GP, bank, and a teacher at her sons’ school. Quite apart from the morality of all this, financial and health hacking are particularly serious offences – two of the last areas of life where even the privacy-revealing yobs and blobs of Cruel Britannia would object to other people knowing their affairs.

“The police were actually withholding evidence,” Ash told the Grauniad, “I’ve been brought up to trust the police. It’s not a good time for the police at the moment.” She says that messages left on mobile phones belonging to her and her children at that time were used without any concern for propriety by tabloids. “That really came home to me because that is not in the public interest,” she said. “The most painful things had been said, while I was in hospital, to my kids, to my husband [along with] things really, really personal to my agent – who wasn’t just my agent, she was my friend.”

This is the way it works: the media, global business and governments have the right to pry into all our most secret areas, but we can very easily go to prison for looking into stuff about them. The law seems wholly unbalanced on the subject. And this is a point The Independent picks up on in its Hackgate coverage this morning, as it points up the growing demand among legislators for press regulation.

Part of me is glad, but more of me isn’t. Right from the start of serious blogging six years ago, I said that before too long the tabloid media would give the Establishment’s control freaks one too many excuses to curtail their rights in the end; so it is beginning to seem now. The Indie notes that ‘the thorny question of formal regulation of newspapers, long resisted by the industry as a threat to press freedom, was put forward a day after the release on police bail of the chief reporter and a former senior executive of the NOTW following their arrest on suspicion of conspiracy to intercept the mobile phone voicemails of public figures…..Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the Government spokesman responding to the debate, said ministers recognised a need to answer concerns about the failure to prevent the phone-hacking scandal, indicating that an independent inquiry could be set up once criminal investigations are complete….’

One of the hundreds of reasons that have led me to become an implacable opponent of all things Murdochian over the last thirty years is the bloke’s unerring ability to destroy so many good things about being British – soccer, the Royal Family, press freedom, diffidence, and general standards of decency. Now the man who pioneered page-three tits and £120,000 a week footballers has blundered headlong into the press freedom issue, and may be about to undermine that too. It’s exactly the same as banking regulation: in the end, crooks get the laws they deserve….even if we don’t.

A bully himself at heart, Lord Prescott is now bouncing from one TV studio to the next, arguing the case for reining in the press. Were he to succeed, I would feel that the revelation of Newscorp’s innate evil had been gained at a very heavy price indeed. But in truth, he has only latterly hijacked a far more courageous and principled stand by Labour MP Chris Bryant, a man who must frequently wonder how far he can trust his leader Ed Miliband – given that he too has the statutory Murdoch spy Tom Baldwin in his midst.

In the meantime, it is gradually dawning on a wider audience (often confused by the whole saga) that both the nature and practice of phone hacking and pc-blagging are about far more than simply collecting news stories. The increasing illumination of shadowy anti-terrorist cop Andy Hayman’s role in the affair is probably what has got Prescott most animated. In which case, Two-Jags should tread carefully: The Slog’s footslogging research into Mr Hayman suggests a man who was rather closer to the Blair ‘sexing up’ culture in 2005 than most people realise. A man who, dare I suggest, might have come in useful as a way of controlling one especially truculent Blair colleague.

Hayman himself has been consistently (and rudely) dismissive of Prescott’s complaints as “nothing more than a rant”. As much as I find the defence of Lord Compleat-Barsteward a difficult task, Andy Hayman’s insulting precis of the former bulimic’s observations is risible.

In the background, meanwhile, the rumbling, growling dispute between Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and John Yates, the Acting Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has again put Scotland Yard’s handling of the original investigation into phone-hacking under the spotlight. The former Met police assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, who was in charge of the original inquiry, claimed there were only “a handful” of victims. The Met’s acting assistant commissioner John Yates, who reviewed new evidence unearthed by the Guardian in July 2009 before concluding there were no grounds for a new inquiry, has said on several occasions that the number of people targeted was low – and has latterly suggested that his figure was based on the DPP’s narrow definition of what ‘hacking’ is. Starmer flatly refutes this version of events.

The overall impression one gains from Hackgate is of rotten apples fermenting to produce a barrel of cultural scrumpy. And as The Slog insists ad nauseam, this is indeed how cultures turn from being fruitful to embracing an enthusiasm for self-harm. This was the most striking message I took from Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film The Changeling – a brilliant (and true) examination of how one department’s perverted desire for political results led to a labyrinthine network of Califronia State-wide corruption in the 1930s. Eastwood movies nearly always contrast the capacity for systemic evil with the ethical individual’s ability to defeat it. I would urge anyone trying to understand Hackgate to see the film.

Anyway, stay tuned – The Slog’s excavation of the life and times of Andy Hayman continues. Every day, in every way, events keep overtaking it. But that’s no bad thing.