Like so many people, I’ve been discussing the impact of the closure of the News of the World, the actions of the journalists and other newspapers and news outlets that seem to have crossed the line into illegality, what role the police have played, and the political and social impacts.
Is the hacking (shorthand, but it’ll do) the journalistic equivalent of the MPs’ expenses scandal or the implosion of the banks? I think it might be more significant. There are a number of common themes – closed worlds which most of us never have any serious insight into, people who operate according to arcane and mysterious rules, and an environment which is so very interconnected that, when one goes, the fallout cannot be contained.
What does this say about our institutions? I do have a bit of a thing about institutions and shared national experiences being much more significant than a straightforward analysis would suggest – for example, the BBC, the NHS, our weird and wonky constitution, and our (previously, anyway) open and demanding media all say something about us as a nation that their actual use and presence in our daily lives doesn’t really account for. The hacking (again, I repeat, that is shorthand for all the intrusions we know about and the many we will probably discover in the coming days and weeks) goes far beyond what we as a society think is acceptable.
It was kind of OK (not OK – but at least often understandable) when it was celebrities or politicians – they, after all, put themselves up as public figures, and we liked that our media held them to account. But the revelations about Milly Dowler’s phone, and the suggestion that the families of those killed on 7/7 had been hacked into – that was something else, and that is shaking our faith in the media that we always thought largely stood up for the little guy.
The thing that has really struck me is that this is yet another institution which, when laid bare and we get information, we suddenly realise has been broken for years. And that is why it is so important to open up the facts and figures of what our government gets up to. I know that there are plenty of things that governments don’t want us to know about, that they don’t want to admit to having discussed (even if to immediately dismiss as not possible for whatever reason). As I mentioned last time I wrote about transparency, it can be both a Good Thing and a Bad Thing. But on balance, it’s a good thing – we know who is doing what, why they’re doing it and how.
I believe that there is a very strong case to be made for far greater publication – of Cabinet discussions and papers, of meetings held by ministers and officials, of reports commissioned and of resources consumed. I accept that there will be many things that are politically difficult, and that sometimes publication will not be possible, whether for security reasons or to protect, for example, whistleblowers. Most people will probably never look at it. But there are enough people who are sufficiently interested and committed to make it a resource for all of us.
The only way we can trust our institutions is if we know what they are up to. I don’t know how you create transparency in the media – they need facts and sources, and they need to be able to hold the powerful to account. But equally, if they argue that they are holding the powerful to account, they need to be scrupulous about what they publish. And on the evidence that is now pouring out about what went on and where, they have not been scrupulous by any stretch of the imagination.