NA IMPRENSA INTERNACIONAL >
Yes, hacking was a disgrace – so why did most newspapers ignore it?
"Nobody should condone the behaviour of parts of the press that led to the Leveson inquiry," said an editorial in yesterday's Sunday Times.
But the point is that virtually all of the non-hacking press, including the Sunday Times, did condone it. They did not investigate the widespread claims of hacking when the story first broke in 2006.
They turned a blind eye when the industry's trade magazine, the Press Gazette, ran a front page in August 2006 which claimed, on the basis of evidence it had quickly obtained, that the practice of "phone screwing" (ie, hacking) had been widespread throughout Fleet Street.
Newspapers now eager to condemn the News of the World for its illegal activities did not lift a finger to expose them. Instead, they appeared to accept the obviously self-serving claim that it was all down to a rogue reporter.
Three years passed, and then The Guardian reported in 2009 that News International had quietly paid out more than £1m to hacking victims, wrecking the rogue reporter defence.
Again, papers that routinely scorn the interception of voicemail messages – most definitely the Sunday Times – preferred to turn on The Guardian rather than take its allegations seriously.
That week, The Times ran an article headlined "News International accuses Guardian over claims of voicemail hacking", which sought to rubbish the paper's revelations.
The Daily Telegraph did nothing. The Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Mirror all averted their gaze. Hacking, though regarded now by all these publications as a disgraceful activity, was not disgraceful enough at the time to warrant investigation.
Needless to say, The Sun – staunch defender of a free press that tells us day by day it wishes to hold power to account – blamed the messenger for the message.
Even if they could not bring themselves to assign reporting teams to the task of probing the illegal activities of a rival paper, they could have demanded that the police did so. But they did not.
There were no headlines urging Scotland Yard to root out the criminals and no editorials demanding government action. They buried their heads and hoped it would all go away.
They let the News of the World, News International and the Metropolitan police off the hook. There was none of the relentless pressure that is now being applied over the issue of press regulation.
Instead, the papers exposed as failing in their central mission have fallen back on saying that hacking was an illegal activity that the police should have investigated.
In another Sunday Times article yesterday, Andrew Sullivan wrote: "Hacking someone's phone is not freedom of speech. It's a crime. It's not journalism… Crimes are not protected under free speech… Criminal acts by editors or writers should be punished in the courts of law."
I cannot disagree with that. But his principled defence of press freedom, viewed from an American perspective, entirely misses the hacking context that led to the formation of the Leveson inquiry and its report.
Britain's national newspapers, by commission and omission, were responsible for creating the current state of affairs. If hacking is now so bad in 2013, why was it not so in 2006?