Forget Regulating the Press. Enforce the Law.

As Reuters has it:

“The basic test of a decent police force is that it catches more criminals than it employs.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, scrambling for his political life, has found the time to call for an overhaul of the British press regulatory system, so-called.

It’s true the U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission, a self-regulatory panel, is now in shambles. The PCC, we now know, covered up the matter it was supposed to police, twice. It was forced to look into hacking by reporters in 2007, after police arrested News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and private eye Glenn Mulcaire and seized 11,000 pages of Mulcaire’s files containing evidence that hacking was rampant at NotW and elsewhere. The PCC’s enforcement arm was then headed by Les Hinton, at the time NI’s chief and now CEO of The Wall Street Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones, sadly, another News Corp. unit. According to this 2009 Guardian piece, Hinton “persuaded the PCC not to impose further sanctions” and accepted the resignation of NotW’s then editor, Andy Coulson, ensuring he wouldn’t have to testify. For good measure, Hinton testified to Parliament that the matter had been thoroughly investigated and that Goodman had acted on his own. Now Hinton’s job is in jeopardy, as it should be. That Hinton was even allowed to participate in the probe is reason enough to scrap the PCC. Then in 2009, after the Guardian uncorked another seminal blockbuster—that NI had
paid $1.6 million in hush money to hacking victims and that the number of victims numbered in the thousands—the PCC issued another report saying it got it right the first time, prompting the Guardian’s top editor, Alan Rusbridger, to quit.

But yesterday’s testimony of members of the police hierarchy shows that the U.K. has far bigger problems than some phony self-regulator. MPs openly mocked John Yates, the assistant police commissioner who blamed his inaction in the face of evidence rampant hacking in 2009 on the fact that the News of the World lied to him. Seriously. This is a cop. Peter Clarke, who oversaw the initial investigation, and thus missed the hacking of murder victim Milly Dowler and thousands more, said they were busy with other things. Andy Hayman, who was in charge of the section that carried out the first probe, then took a job, get this, as a Times of London columnist, denied being corrupt, though he allowed that it was “unwise” to dine with NI executives while his unit was investigating their company. An MP called him a “dodgy geezer.” And he is a dodgy geezer. The men now blame NI executives for lying and being obstructionist, but as Nick Davies points out in this video, they never had mentioned all that before. “It smells of collusion,” he says. Does it ever.

And if only failing to investigate something was the only problem. But NI has now disclosed documents showing that at least five Metropolitan Police officers accepted bribes for information on crime victims. What’s more, we learn, a private eye and key NotW source named Jonathan Rees, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for planting cocaine on a woman and was a suspect in the ax-murder of a business partner, had moonlighting police personnel on his payroll. The NYT reported that top cops knew that their own phones were hacked by NotW, raising the question of whether they feared that if they aggressively investigated the paper, it would retaliate “with splashy articles about their private lives.”

The Metropolitan Police’s problems run so deep it’s hard to know whether it was acting to protect News International, or itself.

Press regulation? Phone hacking is a crime. So, too, is bribery and obstruction of justice.

Before it begins to worry about press ethics and other such niceties, the U.K. needs to figure out how it’s going to enforce basic criminal laws already on its books.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , , ,