Thursday, 9 September 2010
Today the House of Commons will debate the "phone hacking" affair.
However, so much has happened in this matter since the New York Times published its article last week, it is probably a good moment to try and disentangle the various threads of this still-developing scandal.
First, there is the issue of what happened within the News of the World newsroom: what the reporters did, what private investigators were contracted to do, what the editor and executives knew about and signed-off, and just how widespread was the use of unauthorised interceptions in producing stories for the newspaper.
At the moment the centre of attention is Andy Coulson, not least by virtue of his current position as head of communications for the government.
But the import of this first issue is wider than just one employee, or indeed one newspaper.
And even in respect of what happened at the News of the World, this is wider than Andy Coulson.
There now seems to be a steady drip of significant new documentary and witness evidence: the invoices produced by John Prescott ; the testimony that may be provided by Sean Hoare, Ross Hall , and now Paul McMullan; and also what is seemingly contained in the drafts of a proposed book by the investigator Glenn Mulcaire.
The emerging picture really does not look promising for Mr Coulson, who appears to have either known about this activity or should have known. He may even be forced to resign.
However, it would appear that other executives and reporters, perhaps even on other newspapers, may now get caught up in this.
So far been the main focus of many Labour politicians and commentators has been this one element of the story, and on Twitter their favoured hashtag tends to be #Hackgate.
The next step in this first element is likely to be a re-opened investigation by the Metropolitan Police; an investigation which, of course, now seems to have been highly flawed in its initial execution.
And this leads us onto the second element: the seemingly flawed police investigation.
What caused the Metropolitan Police investigation to be so apparently misconducted?
Here the crucial allegation of the New York Times is that there was an improper relationship between the Metropolitan Police and News International.
And in respect of this allegation, it is important to bear in mind the chronology of the investigation (see my New Statesman post here for more on this).
The police investigation is triggered by events in November 2005. By May 2006, there seems to be evidence of a large number of unlawful interceptions. However, for no apparent good reason, the operational decision is made to significantly narrow the investigation.
When the arrests are then made in August 2006 of Clive Goodman and Mr Mulcaire, and evidence seized, the evidence seized from the latter of 2,978 complete or partial mobile-phone numbers and 91 secret (ie, non-factory-set) PIN codes appears not have then been properly investigated.
Charges are still brought only in respect of Mr Goodman and Mr Mulcaire.
As I have blogged previously, even the 91 secret PIN codes render the current assertions that there were only a handful of cases which could be prosecuted as very difficult to understand.
The possible errors of the police investigation and any undue effect on this investigation caused by the relationship between News International and the Metropolitan Police looks as if it is in within the scope of the recently announced inquiry by the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Those who are more interested in the New York Times allegation of an improper relationship tend to favour the hashtag #MetGate on Twitter.
And then there is a new, third part of the scandal.
This is the extent to which the unlawful interceptions and the failure by the Metropolitan Police affected the privileges and rights of parliamentarians.
This is the focus of today's debate, and one can see how it draws on both "HackGate" and "MetGate".
Members of Parliament have good reason to be wary of encroachments by both the police and the others.
There was the all rather hapless raid on Damian Green's office by the Metropolitan Police; and then there was the misconceived (and legally-illiterate) attempt by those acting for Trafigura to restrict reporting of parliamentary proceedings.
In a democratic and representative political system it is correct that MPs have protection from unlawful interference. Not even the security services are allowed to monitor the correspondence and telephone calls of MPs.
That said, the right to personal privacy is something all individuals are entitled to, unless there is a wider public interest in interfering with that right and, if so, that interference should always be proportionate and on a lawful basis.
So, although MPs are right to hold a debate on how MetGate affects their positions, there are implications for those who are not elected representatives.
This scandal has now lasted a week. The seemingly re-opened police investigation, the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry, and today's parliamentary debate all will ensure the story carries on further.
And then there are revelations which may come from impending and current legal proceedings (see my post here).
This is a story, now with at least three emerging threads, which will not go away.
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