10 July 2011

Oh my goodness! Can it get any worse than this? I suspect it can!

News of the WorldYou will all recollect the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, one of Rupert Murdoch’s News International titles. Clearly, the attempted cover-up has not succeeded and the story has been blown wide open this week with such a force and pace that it’s difficult for a poor befuddled weekly periodical such as the Befouled Weakly News to keep pace. I don’t imagine there will have been quite so much coverage in countries other than the UK so I’ll try to provide a potted update of the latest developments. For fuller details have a look at the Guardian’s coverage.

You will remember that the paper was discovered having hacked into the mobile phones of Prince William and some of his aides in 2005. When that story broke there was an “exhaustive” enquiry by both the paper and the Metropolitan police which concluded that this was all the work of one rogue reporter and a private investigator. No one at the top knew anything and the two were briefly jailed.

Shortly thereafter “secret” compensation payments of nearly £1m each were paid to two “celebrities” whose phones were hacked. The payments were authorised by James Murdoch without the approval of the News International board. These payments included a “gagging” clause to prevent any further scandal leaking out.

Unfortunately (for News International and Murdoch), the cover-up didn’t quite cover things up. More details began to leak out and the “one rogue reporter” story began to crumble. Since then something in the region of a hundred celebrities, sports personalities and politicians have been informed that their phones were hacked; a few have settled for substantial compensation payments but the majority seem determined to have their day in court. The police now estimate that several thousand people had their phones hacked.

Then, earlier this week, it emerged that the newspaper had hacked into the mobile phone of the teenager Millie Dowler who was abducted and later found murdered in 2002; (her killer has just been convicted). It seems that the newspaper hacked into her mobile phone soon after she disappeared and used information they gleaned from messages left by family and friends as part of their newspaper coverage. The public has found those actions pretty despicable but it gets even worse. When the mailbox in her phone filled up, the newspaper deleted the messages to free up space for more messages leading her family and friends to conclude that she must still be alive. Now, the police are taking a keen interest because it’s possible that the newspaper’s actions may have destroyed evidence. And, all of this occurred a full four years before the hacking into Prince William’s phones. All the work of one rogue reporter and, of course, no one further up the food chain knew anything at all! And pigs will fly.

In the last few days a flood of further details have emerged. The police are now investigating the disappearance (i.e., deletion) of millions of e-mails between editors, reporters and outsiders, including private investigators at the News of the World. This comes after a News International executive testified in a court case in Scotland last December that the e-mails had been “lost” in a transfer to Mumbai. At almost the same time the company solicitor was telling the High Court that it was impossible to retrieve e-mails more than six months old.

Unfortunately, in January, News International handed three e-mails to the police dating from the period when the e-mails were supposed to have been lost and/or irretrievable. This prompted the Metropolitan Police to launch their third “exhaustive” enquiry into the hacking scandal which then led to two separate attempts, allegedly by a News of the World executive, to delete half a terabyte of data (equivalent, apparently, to about 500 editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica).

On Thursday came the announcement that Murdoch undoubtedly hopes will draw a line under the affair – News International announced the closure of the News of the World after 168 years. Today’s edition will be the last. Not surprisingly, there is widespread speculation that this is all a diversion. Interestingly, the internet domain names TheSunOnSunday.co.uk, TheSunOnSunday.com and SunOnSunday.co.uk were registered four days ago. (The Sun is Rupert Murdoch’s daily tabloid which exhibits similarly sterling standards of journalistic integrity as the News of the World).

No doubt there will be more to come in the days, weeks and months ahead. It’s all rather reminiscent of Watergate with The Guardian filling the role of the Washington Post. Don’t these people ever learn – it’s the cover-up that brings you down.

Oops! On another issue altogether: another example of the coalition government’s inability to think things through has recently emerged thanks to a leaked letter from the office of the Minister for Communities, Erik Pickles.

As we’ve discussed in the past, the Conservative branch of the coalition government has been trying to pursue policies based on ideology rather than practicality, wherever they feel they can slip these past their Liberal Democrat partners. Generally, these policies are dressed up to make them somewhat more palatable and the bottom line always is the need to cut the deficit. Unfortunately, as in their attempts to deal with the costs of higher education, they don’t always think things through and their policies, while obviously pleasing to their supporters on the far right, end up costing more than they save and doing nothing to cut the deficit.

One of the money-saving policies the government is currently trying to introduce is a cap on the amount of money paid to anyone on benefits. Clearly, this is very appealing to the right wing of the Conservative party who are convinced that everyone receiving any sort of public benefit is a welfare scrounger while at the same time the government estimates the policy will save something in the order of £270m per year. Win, win!

It now emerges, however, that Erik Pickles’ department carried out an estimate of the likely impact and “savings” and their best guess is that the policy will make something in the region of 40,000 families homeless and that the estimated savings will be more than wiped out by the need for local authorities to divert resources to help the newly-created homeless, resulting in “a net cost”. Apparently, the letter, which has just surfaced, was sent by Pickles’ department to the Prime Minister’s office in January yet the government has been ploughing ahead regardless leading some MPs to accuse the government of misleading Parliament, a very serious offence in British Parliamentary democracy. (I know – how wacky is that? After all, that’s what politicians do, isn’t it? When did you last hear a politician give a straight, honest answer to a straight-forward question?) Still, it looks like more lessons in “cause and effect” are needed if the coalition is ever to get the hang of this governing thing.

My sweetheart suggested, out of the blue one evening, that we should go to the cinema. Now, as you know, it’s usually me who suggests such outings and only when I have received a free cinema ticket voucher together with some discounted dinner vouchers. On this occasion, however, Ms Playchute decided we should go to the cinema so go to the cinema we did.

Now I know why I always wait to get free cinema tickets before suggesting such excursions! £17.20 for the two of us (and that’s without any drinks, popcorn or other rubbish). I wouldn’t have minded too much if the film had been value for money but, alas, I am afraid it wasn’t (in our view, anyway). We went to see Bridesmaids which we always knew was going to be a bit of light fluff. I guess we hadn’t anticipated just how light and fluffy it was going to be. Don’t go out of your way to see it, I guess is our review.

Fortunately, I was able to secure some half price vouchers for main courses at Pizza Express so at least that part of the evening was not a disappointment.

Finally, I ran across the following the other day which more or less sums up my perception of how meteorologists forecast the weather:

Don’t forget – we are off to Tuscany on Saturday for two weeks. I hope that we will be able to maintain communication but can’t promise anything.

Love to you all,