Four questions Robert Jay failed to ask Rebekah Brooks and why they matter

The sessions with Rebekah Brooks proved interesting, but less exciting than the previous sessions with Rupert Murdoch. In large part, the sessions with Brooks and Coulson proved relatively less exciting because they are both facing criminal prosecution.  As a result, the lines of questioning were less direct on some topics while other topics were avoided completely.

The challenge, then, was to find a way to draw out key lessons and issues to illustrate the relationship between the press and politicians.  Robert Jay did a good job but he missed some good chances.

Here are four questions I think he missed and why they were important for what the Leveson inquiry will recommend.

Question 1: “What stories did you not publish because subjects refused consent to the Sun running the story?”

The question was not pursued even though Brooks raised the point on p.40 of her afternoon testimony.  She mentioned that Sarah and Gordon Brown and consented to the story being run. She then explains that there are many examples where people, in very tragic situations, have asked me not to run the story and I have not.

Why does this matter?        The question would have shown us the way that Brooks operated. In particular, it would have confirmed the approach that Murdoch explained as the “game” in his testimony.  What stories were not published and why? Was the issue solely consent or something else to the story?

Question 2: “What do you mean by saying “MPs don’t scare easily?”

On page 66 of the morning transcript, in middle of the morning session, Brooks lets a comment pass about the fact that politicians are not fearful of the newspapers.  She then says, “MPs don’t scare easily”. She later uses similar language at the close of the morning session on page 98 of the transcript. What needs to be asked, is how does she know if she has never tried to scare them, threaten them, or coerce them with her influence?

Why does this matter?        The choice of words is revealing by their use and context.  Although threats are discussed as they originate from Gordon Brown or his associates, they seem never to flow the other way.  Yet, we are seeing a major newspaper figure talking about the relationship between press and politicians, yet this passes without comment. The issue is pursued later in the afternoon with the campaign for a review of the McCann case. However, we do not get a sense of how or why Brooks knows that MPs cannot be scared. One wonders given the infamous statement by Greg Miskiw  “That is what we do – we go out and destroy other people’s lives”.

Question 3:  What would have been the public interest in Gordon Brown handwriting story?

The question is not pursued, yet it is at the heart of the issue. What is the judgement that the newspaper editor, Dominic Mohan, and its chief executive officer, Brooks, about the public interest in knowing that Gordon Brown has poor handwriting?  How is this story in the public’s interest?  While this may be interesting to the public, is it in the public interest? To put it differently but directly, has any other Prime Minister had their handwritten letters published and criticized by the press while the country is engaged in combat operations?

Why does this matter?        The question gets to the heart of the issue between the interest to the public and the public interest. The question would also lead us into why the paper would pursue such story, such a headline, and continue to follow it up with a published transcript of the telephone conversation. Brooks stated that she apologized that the story was a mistake, yet they ran follow up stories afterward. It remains on their website to this day.  If the Sun was not acting politically, presenting an interest, why was it continuing on a storyline that Brooks admitted was a mistake and apologised for at the time?

From the newspaper reporting at the time, we are led to believe that the mother arranged for the telephone call to be recorded and sent to the Sun. The reason given by the Sun was that this was to support the troops over lack of funding leading to a lack of equipment.  While the wider issue has a public interest, is how this story is done, in the public interest? One only has to note that the select committee was already looking at the issue.  As an aside, were such a story to run in the United States, one would find that such disrespect for the private telephone conversation with the commanding officer would have been dishonourable. The story, though, is then less about a lack of funding and more about an attack on Gordon Brown through his poor handwriting.  Is this about holding a politician to account, as claimed by Brooks, or a way to damage him politically? We see a paper using the public’s interest  to promote the paper’s interest and justify it as the public’s interest?

Question 4: “Did you ever trade a story for influence?

Former News of the World journalists have claimed that Brooks often dropped stories to gain leverage over influential people. The tactic, which others used as well,  was that the News of the World would threaten a terrible story but would drop it in exchange for a milder article.

Why does this matter?        The question addresses a key issue of how newspaper, and, in particular editors, can influence politicians and justify it in the public interest.  The issue now is not what is in the press, but rather what is not in the press.  What is apparently in the public interest is not to publish the article. Yet, how do we, the public, know this? How has out interest been consulted or understood?  We are told that the circulation of the News of the World justifies this approach, but what of stories that are not printed? How do they know what their readers want on the stories that are withheld?  In this way, the newspaper can decide the public interest and influence politicians, without being seen to do it.  In other words, the power is enhanced by what is held back, the threat, the potential, instead of the published and the actual, which the public can judge.

Rupert Murdoch admitted that trading stories for influence was part of the game.  Brooks alluded to it in her testimony, as mentioned in question 1. As such, it would have been a useful line to take given the question of how journalists are able to influence politicians.

The overall approach was good at drawing out the points. However, it also the Leveson inquiry’s limits. First, the inquiry is not a search for truth. As a result, the questions will be less direct and more to draw out a response.  Second, it is bound by a set of pre-determined questions, through its terms of reference, which will shape the overall strategic approach. As the overall strategy is set, the tactical questions available to Jay and other inquisitors is limited.

We are fortunate to see how power and influence is wielded by and through the press. One realizes as these hearings progress that the senior press and politicians are not people to be taken lightly nor are they people who take kindly to challenges to their authority.

What remains to be seen is whether Leveson, and Jay, will pursue this line of questioning with any politicians.  Running throughout the testimony has been a constant subterranean theme about the “trade” in stories.  We hear reference to stories being withheld, traded, or promoted to gain favour or leverage.  We have heard how politicians would steer stories to specific reporters and expect favorable coverage in return.

We may never pierce the labyrinth of lies, though we may now understand why integrity, decency, and honesty are so precious because they are so rare.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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