The shameful sight of a politician annexing a family’s grief for another campaign

Millions of words have been written about the latest twist in the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World. If the allegations that an investigator working for the News of the World hacked into the phone of Milly Dowler and deleted messages while the hunt for her was still ongoing, then words won’t be enough to describe how most journalists will feel.

As Paul Robertson, editor of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, wrote on Twitter today, it’s important that journalists make the point that the sort of activities being alleged aren’t acceptable, aren’t normal practice and, put simply, aren’t what the vast majority of us do.

And it’s also important that the authorities are allowed to do their job in the correct way. There is an assumption that every new allegation against the News of the World is true. At the moment, nothing has been proven in a court of law [of the recent allegations]. They are allegations – and it’s sad that those who complained that the police didn’t take the hacking allegations  seriously originally are now acting as judge and jury.

One blog on the Guardian has provided a list of ways to take action against the News of the World today, such as boycotting the paper and protesting to advertisers – but surely that is jumping the gun.

Such action would have far greater impact once the allegations are proved or otherwise.

But while The Guardian has the right to drive the agenda of a story it has led the way on, the behaviour of former deputy prime minister John Prescott has been little short of disgraceful.

He has been very vocal in complaining that the police haven’t done their jobs properly in the hacking investigation yet was on Twitter within minutes of the Guardian breaking its story to announce he was going on to the PM programme to say why this proved Murdoch should be stopped from taking over BSkyB.

And then:

Appearing on the 10pm news, Prescott repeated all the allegations against the News of the World, presumably having gone to the trouble of investigating them himself to make sure he wasn’t just repeating allegations as fact. Or maybe not.  And then saying this proved why the Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB should be stopped.

One of the things I hate more than anything is the annexing of grieving families by politicians into campaigns. Back in 2004, I covered a story about the BNP using the death of a girl killed by an illegal aslyum seeker in Blackburn to justify its crusade against foreigners in the North East of England. The family of Amy Houston knew nothing of it, and were appalled.

For the Dowler family, the ordeal of the recent trial of Milly’s killer was spelt out at the end of the court case. News of the News of the World allegations can only have hurt them more, especially as they worked with the paper while she was still a missing person.

Using the allegations to stoke up a totally different fight is a shameful act by a politician as senior as Prescott, a man who we shouldn’t forget was deputy prime minister. Of course, I may have missed that he had spoken to the Dowlers in advance to get their permission, but I like to think he might have mentioned that.

Prescott has form for trying to twist an argument to have a go at News International. The debate on Twitter over Johann Hari’s supposed lifting of material on Twitter last week was fascinating, and certainly not aided by Prescott’s intervention:

No, and neither did Hari sleep with his secretary while deputy prime minister, punch a voter on the campaign trail or go back on a promise never to take a peerage in the House of Lords. In short, cross-referencing the different issues adds nothing.

If only Prezza had so thorough and determined when the cabinet was being presented with the so-called evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Prezza, in short, isn’t adding to the debate over phone hacking or the quest to find the truth.

That’s not to say politicians shouldn’t be talking about it as investigations go on. For an example of an MP who is diligently presenting his thoughts in a way which in party neutral, lets look at Labour’s Tom Watson.

His comments on TV last night were thoughtful, thorough and considered. He criticised his own party as well as those in Government. He clearly wants, first and foremost, for this to never happen again.

As a profession, we have to ensure the phone hacking investigation is allowed to play out in a way which ensures it can’t happen again.

We can’t allow it be hijacked by people who really has nothing useful to say. That’s the peril of 24 hour news, I guess – it’s not necessarily what you have to say, but how soon you can say it which matters these days.

My question for John Prescott would be: If Labour was still the party of choice for News International, would you be quite so opposed to Murdoch’s plans for BSkyB?

8 comments

  1. Despicable though Prescott is, he’s not as despicable as Murdoch or anybody who fails to criticise Murdoch when given the opportunity. Those who regularly buy any of the tabloid part of Murdoch’s print output needs their head examining, following Hillsborough and the rest of the despicable behaviour down the decades

  2. Come to think of it, with yet more disgusting behaviour being exposed by the minute, (see the breaking news) only a closet Murdoch apologist or somebody completely out of touch with what’s going on would so quickly be muddying the water and devoting a whole post to an attack on Prescott, before we’ve even seen the true extent of Rebekah Wade’s and her fellow journalists’ depravity.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I’m not a Murdoch apologist and I’m not trying to defend anything that is alleged to have been done. What I believe is that it is essential that the investigations have to take their course, and there also needs to be an open debate about it.

      That debate is all the harder when politicians like Prescott use every revelation to run a different campaign.

      As for not criticising, I think my post makes it very clear what I think of the allegations, if true.

  3. Wide of the mark David.

    The BBC news is leading with the story today and swiftly moves to the issue of ownership of BSkyB.

    Unfortunately for the Dowllers this issue is about the integrity of NI, journalism in general (are Trinity Mirror innocent?) and the judgement of the Prime Minister in employing Andy Coulson.

    A blog entry attacking John Prescott? Come on.

    1. Thanks for the comment Dean. What I was trying to draw attention to in this post was the annexing of the Dowlers in a campaign which was entirely separate to the phone hacking probe. The way Pescott has behaved makes it look as though he as another agenda. As I said in my post, there are other politicians, such as Tom Watson, who are doing much more to get answers and ensure the right action is taken.

      This wasn’t a post about whether Prescott has behaved better or worse than the NOTW is alleged to, as that is a no brainer. Of course he hasn’t. But in behaving the way he has, I think he has demonstrated that he is only interested in attacking NI at all costs. whether this would be the case if Labour and NI were still working together is a crucial question.

  4. I don’t think Murdoch should be allowed to take over Sky but I agree with David as well. Having Prescott jump the gun like this makes it easier for him to be dismissed for having another agenda. It’s good to see Tom Watson getting praise, as he is behaving just as politician should. Prescott has behaved badly, and shown little respect for the victims.

    1. Thanks Dan. I wasn’t arguing for or against the takeover of BSkyB – but if I was campaigning against it, I’d want to ensure Prescott wasn’t part of my argument.

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