Phone-hacking: Met prosecuting just Goodman and Mulcaire was a proportionate response

News International seems mired in a crazy perfect storm of controversy: from Richard Keys’ claims of dark forces at work over the Sky Sports sacking sexism row, to endless new developments in phone hacking at the News of the World and the ongoing furore over News Corp’s planned £8bn buyout  of BSkyB.

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today takes an even-handed look at the moral mess of the phone-hacking row noting: “This was hardly the Iraq war, but it was careless”.

Much as some MPs may seek to imply that listening to the phone messages of celebrities was the media crime of the century – the real issue here is about honesty over the way hacking was dealth with, and the dubious ‘rogue reporter’ defence (which never really stacked up).

Also if it can be proven that hacking has gone on post 2007 we are into a whole new ball-game. But that is far from proven yet. The new allegation against News of the World reporter Dan Evans (suspended since April 2010)  appears to stem from his own number coming out in a disclosure from a mobile phone company in the Kelly Hoppen versus News of the World phone-hack privacy case.

His apparent defence (as reported by The Guardian) that it was an innocent mistake holds some water. If you were mad enough to hack a voicemail post the Goodman/Mulcaire convictions you’d have to be certifiable to do it from your own traceable mobile number.

As for the Met Police/News Corp conspiracy/cover-up side of the story: the Met handling of all this has been clumsy. And the police reluctance to inform the many apparent phone-hack victims that they were targeted is indeed odd.

But as for the reason why there wasn’t a fully-fledged phone-hack criminal witch hunt at the News of the World in 2006. Wasn’t it just the case that, faced with a huge amount of phone-hack evidence and limited resources, the Met decided to focus on Goodman and Mulcaire to secure easy convictions and make examples of them?

It was similar to the Information Commissioner and the Operation Motorman inquiry – the details of which were published in December 2006.

Back then the Commissioner found 17,000 invoices for journalists buying potentially illegal information – but it decided only to prosecute the private investigator, Steve Whittamore, who was doing the blagging rather than the hundreds of journalists who had used him.

As Information Commissioner Christopher Graham told MPs in September 2009: “We had to decide whether to throw all the resources of our organisation behind this investigation. The decision was taken that we were going to approach this by trying to attack the unlawful dealing in personal information at source.”

In other words the Info Commissioner could spend years tracking down every potential wrongdoer – but he has limited resources and lots of other things to do as well. Similarly the Met probably reasoned that it has murderers and terrorists to catch and that just going for Goodman and Mulcaire was a proportionate response.

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