Phone-tapping: End of Story?

The Guardian phone-tapping story has not had as much impact as the Telegraph‘s earlier story on MPs’ expenses, despite the enthusiasm that broadcasters showed for it yesterday.

The allegation that the News of the World paid out more than £1m to settle claims by people whose private phone messages were allegedly intercepted is a little too close to home for some of the other papers.

Another reason is that both Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service moved with unexpected speed to knock down the story, much to the annoyance of Nick Davies who broke the story online on the Guardian website on Wednesday afternoon.

Yesterday’s statements from Assistant Commissioner John Yates and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, can be read as positive or negative, according to taste. Here is my take on them.

Yates said that although Clive Goodman, the News of the World reporter, and Glenn Mulcaire, his private investigator, may have targeted “hundreds of people”, they tapped the phones of only a “far smaller number” of people.

“In the vast majority of cases there was insufficient evidence to show that tapping had actually been achieved,” he explained.

What does this mean? It could be that Goodman and Mulcaire found it much harder than they had expected to access people’s voice messages. Or it could mean that the police could not prove that the two had accessed more than a handful of recordings.

As I understand sections 2(7) and 2(8) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, unlawful interception covers listening to people’s messages before the intended recipient picks them up rather than afterwards – though I am not entirely sure I have got that right.

Certainly, Yates says  ”the technical challenges posed to the service providers to establish that there had in fact been interception were very, very, significant”.

He points out that there is no evidence that, for example, John Prescott’s phone was tapped. More to the point, he makes it clear the police are not going to start looking for it now.

It is not surprising that the Met are unwilling to follow up a story that emerged from unauthorised leaks from Scotland Yard. And the Crown Prosecution Service seems equally unenthusiastic.

Starmer said: “I have no reason to consider that there was anything inappropriate in the prosecutions that were undertaken in this case.”

He ordered “an urgent examination of the material that was supplied to the CPS by the police three years ago”.

But he was taking this action to satisfy himself and assure the public “that the appropriate actions were taken in relation to that material”.

That was clearly the answer he was hoping to hear. What the DPP did not do was to ask the police to make further enquiries.

And it’s all very well for various solicitors to say their clients intend to sue the News of the World for breach of privacy. Without evidence from the police, they will not get very far.

Even then, they will not find the newspaper as willing to pay the huge damages it shelled out when it was sued by Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association.

That case was settled to keep it out of the papers. It’s too late for that now.


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