News of the World: A newspaper is gone, but an inquiry is as urgent as ever

So farewell then, News of the World. We will remember Squidgygate and Camillagate, the buying up of witnesses («blood money»), the «kiss and sell» affairs, the celebrity hacks and most recently the phone hacking. Its editors have been «drinking at the last chance saloon» for 30 years, which should enter the record books as the longest swill in history.

It saw off the powerless Press Council, replaced by the worthless Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Nothing has really changed since it was condemned for publishing topless pictures of Diana on a private beach, to which judgment the paper responded by republishing them under the headline «This is what the row’s all about, folks».

The News of the World proved that, whenever cutthroat circulation was at stake, self-regulation was bound to fail in instilling any sense of ethical conduct, or even respect for the criminal law, in the business of tabloid infotainment. That is partly because we are an excessively prurient society, addicted to Sunday morning schadenfreude as we read of other people’s griefs and adulteries. But it is also because the harlot’s prerogative through the ages, of power without responsibility, has cowed most of the democratic institutions that should stand up for decency and the rule of law.

For all the self-righteousness on display in parliament, MPs took their cue from the prime minister’s utterly mistaken assumption that there should be no public inquiry until police investigations had run their course. By which time – years into the future, as Scotland Yard virtually admitted yesterday, engulfed by 11,000 pages with 4,000 names (and that’s just for 2006) – memories will have faded and News International will be the proprietor of BSkyB.

This is exactly the situation that the Inquiries Act of 2005 was passed to avoid. It permits a speedy and authoritative examination of a matter of scandal and concern, so as to allay public disquiet and ensure the scandal is not repeated. Such an inquiry does not pre-judge trials – it has no power to determine anyone’s civil or criminal liability. But its chairman has the power to require the production of documents and to insist that anyone – even Rupert Murdoch – attend for public examination. This power can be enforced by the high court, on pain of criminal sanction. Such an inquiry is set up by resolution of both houses of parliament, to examine a matter «of urgent public importance».

The issues that need urgent inquiry are not made any less urgent by the closure of the paper. They are not only those identified by the prime minister, such as the ineptness of the original police investigation. There must be an examination of the culture of the tabloid press, the bribery and corruption that has gone on between journalists and their police sources, the total failure of self-regulation (and how to replace it), the inadequate training of journalists in law and ethics (most had no idea that phone hacking was made illegal in 1998, and still regarded payments to police as «inappropriate», when in fact they are seriously criminal).

Previous royal commissions into the press – the last reported in 1975 – did achieve some useful reforms, especially by introducing rules to protect against media monopolies (scandalously ignored by John Biffen when Murdoch took over the Times and Sunday Times) and laying down the test for «fit and proper» proprietors. That is a test which a public inquiry would be much better equipped to answer than Jeremy Hunt, a judge in his party’s cause.

There can be no excuse to delay, other than fear of News International (and, to be fair, the company has said it would welcome a public inquiry). Moreover, police inquiries in this area have not been very competent or comprehensive; witnesses and suspects do not have to answer questions; there will be no attempt to get at the truth about ethical standards. Police are notoriously poor at investigating senior police officers, whose relations with media executives need to be put under the microscope. In such sensitive and political matters, Britain is still in the age of constable Dogberry – in the US, the process would be conducted much more effectively by special prosecutors, and in Europe by examining judges.

So a public inquiry under the 2005 act, set up in the next few days with a clear brief (which must include BSkyB) and a deadline to report in six to nine months, is the sensible way forward. David Cameron is right to avoid a sitting judge – they should be kept out of politics. Fortuitously, two leading jurists who have valuably contributed to intellectual debate on press freedom – Lord Hoffmann and Sir Stephen Sedley – have recently retired, and may be available to chair.

A few respected members of the press and public should be appointed to the tribunal – the likes of Kate Adie, Martin Bell, Richard Branson and Harold Evans come to mind. With its own counsel and team of investigators, the hearings could begin in October and be over by Christmas, with the report published by Easter. Hunt has postponed his quasi-judicial decision on BSkyB until September, but no one will believe it is in any sense «judicial» unless it is informed by a proper inquiry into the fitness of News International.

The closure of the News of the World must not end the debate over the ethical limits of tabloid journalism: this dramatic gesture should be a signal to begin it in earnest. The PCC is a confidence trick that has ceased to inspire confidence – other countries which respect free speech have statutory «press ombudspersons» who adjudicate public complaints, direct retractions and compensation, enforce rights of reply and monitor ethical standards. Had the British media been prepared to accept this form of statutory regulation, the public would be enjoying the News of the World for years to come.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, head of Doughty Street Chambers and the co‑author of Robertson and Nicol on Media Law.

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