Phone hacking: Q&A with Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian. Murdoch must be stopped from owning BSkyB entirely

The Guardian’s editor debates with readers from 2.30pm about issues arising from the phone-hacking scandal

o guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 July 2011 07.48 BST

Two years on from the Guardian’s first story on the extent of phone hacking, the full truth of what was going on at the News of the World is being stripped bare. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP
• The Q&A is now closed. Thanks to all who took part. We’ve collected Alan’s answers to your questions at the bottom of this article

Sometimes the forward momentum of newspaper investigations is virtually invisible to the naked eye. It’s lucky that Nick Davies is an exceptionally patient reporter because there must have been times during the past two years when he felt no one wanted to hear what he was so clearly saying.
Nick’s first story on the full extent of the phone-hacking scandal was published almost exactly two years ago – on 8 July 2009. It was – or should have been – explosive. It reported that a major global media company – News International – had paid out £1m secretly to settle legal cases which revealed criminality within their business.
Instead of going back to parliament or the regulator to admit that they had been misled, the company’s chairman, James Murdoch, signed a large cheque to stop the truth coming out.
With any non-media company this revelation would have led to blanket coverage, calls for resignations, immediate action by the regulator etc. Instead there was a kind of ghostly silence.
The Metropolitan police – led by Assistant Commissioner John Yates – announced an inquiry. And then, within the space of a few hours, he announced the inquiry was over and there was nothing to inquire into.
News International, doubtless pleased by this clean bill of health, came out all guns blazing, denouncing the Guardian’s deliberate attempts to mislead the public. Most of the press decided it wasn’t much of a story. The regulator decided there was nothing wrong. And many MPs were sympathetic in private, but indicated there was little in it for them in sticking their heads above any public parapet.
And so we settled in for the long haul. Week by week, story by story, column by column, doorstep by doorstep, Nick Davies prised open the truth. There were some other heroes: a handful of lawyers and MPs and a few journalists – on the New York Times, Independent, FT, BBC and Channel 4. But it was pretty lonely work for those at the heart of it. And there were plenty of people yawning from the sidelines, claiming it was all a bit obsessive.
But investigative journalism is a bit obsessive. Sometimes it works by small, incremental, barely perceptible steps.
Scroll forward two years and the full truth of what was going on at the News of the World is dramatically being stripped bare. Some kind of mental dam has been broken. MPs, journalists, regulators and police are speaking confidently again as they should. The palpably intimidating spectre of an apparently untouchable media player has been burst.
But what now? How can we make sure that we never again have this kind of dominant force in British public life?
One positive step yesterday was the announcement that there would be at least one public inquiry into what on earth was going on within the Metropolitan police.
There are two outstanding issues that will affect the future of the media in this country. One is the threatened imminent decision to wave through the deal which would give Rupert Murdoch total control over the biggest commercial broadcaster as well as 40% of the national press.
Anyone who reads into the story of the last two years can see that’s a terrible idea. But – on the narrow grounds on which Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron are fighting – it’s a complex issue mixing competition law, Ofcom, plurality and politics.
And then there’s the question of how the press should be regulated. There will be plenty of calls for statutory regulation in the days and weeks to come.
I don’t like the idea. I resist the notion of state licensing of journalists – and I struggle to see how there is any easy definition of “journalist” in 2011. So I would like to see self-regulation continue.
But I admit this is shaky ground. When the PCC came out with its laughable report into phone hacking in November 2009 (which, to its credit, it finally retracted yesterday) I warned that this was going to be dangerous for the cause of self regulation and I quit the PCC’s code committee in protest.
The PCC’s weakness is that it doesn’t have the powers of a regulator. So it should either abandon the claim to be a regulator – and carry on doing its valuable work of mediation and adjudication – or else it has to acquire powers of compelling witnesses, calling evidence etc. But how does it do that without becoming laboriously legalistic and horrendously expensive to run?
These are some of the issues now coming down the slipway and I look forward to discussing them.
Comments will be off on this article until 2.30pm on Thursday when Alan Rusbridger will be answering questions live online for two hours.