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Comment: Two outstanding questions over phone hacking

Despite a gentle Press Complaints Commission (PCC) report and News International’s attempts to play the affair down, the Guardian’s phone hacking exposé just won’t go away.

This weekend, it was back under the spotlight with Lady Buscombe, the body’s chair, in her second public interview since taking up the reins, defending the fact the PCC found no new evidence of phone hacking at News International since its 2007 inquiry.

“Alan [Rusbridger] has damned our report because he doesn’t like the result,” Buscombe told the Independent. “Because we haven’t produced this evidence which nobody else has managed to procure, including the police.”

She said she won’t resign, despite solicitor Mark Lewis’ request that she should following her public citation of police lawyers’ claims which contradicted Lewis’ parliamentary evidence.

Buscombe claimed in the interview that the PCC received no help from The Guardian. “Those who say there is more to the story than meets the eye have never helped us produce the evidence.”

The Independent took up one very important question: ‘why did the PCC not question those accused of the hacking, such as private investigator Glenn Mulcaire?’

“We didn’t ask Mulcaire because we were absolutely clear we were not going to go down routes where it was fallow ground. The remit of the PCC is set by PressBof [the Press Board of Finance], and we have already stretched our remit through this whole process,” answered Buscombe.

Writing on his blog yesterday, Roy Greenslade found this unsatisfactory:

“Fallow ground? In truth, it is ground that has never been properly tilled, and the PCC passed up the chance to put it to the plough. As for the stretching of the remit, that’s disingenuous nonsense.

“The remit of the PCC is to ensure that editors and journalists obey the code of practice. Nick Davies produced evidence that strongly suggested that the News of the World had breached the code.

“What the PCC stretched was our credulity by claiming that it had held an inquiry into those allegations. An exchange of letters with an editor who was not even on the paper at the time of the (alleged) code breaches is not an inquiry.”

Here are, in my view, two other important questions that should be raised by any further inquiry into the Guardian’s reports / phone hacking evidence:

  • What’s the truth about the reporter behind the ‘Neville’ email?

Private Eye claims that the ‘junior’ reporter, who penned the ‘Neville’ email [background here], a crucial part of the evidence, held two by-lined identities before he went off on his round-the-world-trip; if true, it raises questions about the evidence given to the Parliamentary select committee (see Private Eye No 1249, page 7).

Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter behind the revelations, believes the PCC was ‘dishonest’ in its handling of the report. “It’s completely clear that all of our allegations about phone-hacking referred to the activities of Glenn Mulcaire, who was sacked by the News of the World in January 2007; and occurred under the editorship of Andy Coulson, who resigned in January 2007.”

The allegations that confidential databases had been ‘blagged’ referred to an even earlier time, Davies told Journalism.co.uk. He also defended the Guardian against the PCC’s allegation that there were a lack of dates in the July 2009 articles, leading to misinterpretation in some ‘quarters':

“There is no lack of clarity about the timing at all,” claimed Davies. “But the PCC – desperately looking for more whitewash to slap all over the scandal – pretend that our story concerned the period after the PCC’s first report, published in May 2007, and on that completely fictional basis, they complain that we have no evidence. Of course we have no evidence about what happened after May 2007 – it’s not a subject we’ve even attempted to address. I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me that the PCC won’t expose the newspapers who fund it. What is surprising is that they have covered up in such a stupid way. I believe that as events unfold, this deeply misleading report of theirs may prove to be a fatal blow to their surviving credibility.”

As I’ve said before, the outcomes of the House of Commons select committee inquiry, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) PCC report inquiry, and the PCC’s own review will be interesting to see – I hope we get some answers to these questions. Any more to add?

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