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April 18, 2011

News of the World three: Don’t make ordinary hacks pay the price for News International’s phone-hacking ‘cover-up’

By Dominic Ponsford1

There was huge shock among many red-top journalists last week at the latest News of the World journalist to have his collar felt as part of the criminal side of the phone-hacking inquiry – James Weatherup.

I met him when he won a darts competition Press Gazette ran in 2007 as part of a commercial tie-up with Ladbrokes. He seemed like a thoroughly nice guy – very far from the snarling tabloid hack of the public imagination.

He was arrested and questioned along with chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck (who has long been implicated in the affair) last week. Their arrests followed that of former assistant editor Ian Edmondson.

In a sense the police are damned whatever they do now. If they are seen to be too lax there will be more allegations they are in cahoots with NI – yet at the same time one has to question why 45 detectives are being used to investigate tabloid snooping when so many more serious crimes go unsolved.

It was a travesty that Clive Goodman was locked up in Belmarsh in 2007 alongside murderers and rapists for what was a gross invasion of privacy, but no more. And it would be a huge over-reaction if more journalists suffered out of proportion punishments because of widespread anger over the perception that News International has been involved in a cover-up over phone-hacking.

We do now need to get to the bottom of this matter. News International will find that sunshine is the best way to disinfect its reputation.

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But it would be grossly unfair to punish more and more ordinary hacks. Phone-hacking spread far, far beyond the News of the World so where would we stop? They threw the book at Goodman and it had the desired affect. As far as we know, no British journalists hack mobile phone messages any more.

News International brought this crisis on itself mainly by going far over-the-top in its “rogue reporter” defence and by sticking to that line in evidence to MPs in 2009.

Those who presided over a culture that let phone-hacking flourish and who then misled MPs and the public over the extent of the problem are those who should have the heaviest weight on their consciences.

News International now admits that its own investigation into phone-hacking was not sufficiently “robust” and it has apologised for that. Because so much litigation is ongoing it has to be careful about what it says. But I would venture that more apologies and more evidence of a thorough cleaning of its house will be needed before the News of the World and News International can start to turn the page on  phone-hacking.

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