It is difficult to find the right word to describe life in Westminster this week. The journalists and broadcasters have all been working overtime with their thesauruses out. In fact, every time we thought that the story about the Murdochs, News International and the extent of their phone hacking practices had got as dramatic as it possibly could, something else would happen to top it. The closure of the News of the World as a newspaper, the reference of the bid by News International to the Competition Commission and then the ultimate withdrawal of that bid all came one after the other at a break-neck speed that left us all struggling to keep up. Even now I am inclined to think that there is still more for us to learn here. As I write this it is still not clear whether Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks will actually give evidence to the select committee that has been investigating this and called them back.
Despite the way this has sparked off in the last few days it is not a new issue. It has been known for years that this had happened. A News of the World journalist and a private investigator have already served prison sentences for doing it. For as long as it only affected politicians, royals and footballers, however, it did not excite a great deal of attention. These are not, after all, groups which readily and immediately command public sympathy.
What unleashed public fury was the revelation that the targets of their criminality included victims of the 7th July bombing in London and Milly Dowler, a murder victim whose family was given hope after her disappearance that she was still alive as a result of her mobile phone being hacked. It was the sheer brutal lack of humanity of this case which really started the public outcry.
The Dowler family were in the House of Commons on Wednesday to see Prime Minister’s Questions and to see him make his statement on the scandal after it. As it happened I had some time with them afterwards. Being able to meet people in the news or the public eye is one of the perks of the job for MPs and while I do not make a career of it as some have done I have been privileged to meet a number of remarkable people over the years, including the Dalai Lama, Dolly Parton and Colin Firth! The Dowler family are not perhaps international figures of the same sort. They have not sought the attention nor do they want it. For them it is an added burden to bear, which they do with dignity. They have paid a terrible human cost for the criminality of a global media business determined to get stories and never mind the consequences. They have been failed by a system where the media were allowed to regulate themselves. The maintenance of a free press able to expose things in the public interest remains a vital part of our democracy. To maintain that right our papers must learn the difference between the public interest and those things in which the public may be interested.
Alistair Carmichael MP