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Premature absolution

2012 March 4

“Church sickened by News of the World phone hacking,” the headline read. But the Church in question turned out to be Charlotte, the singer. The Church of England, by contrast, in the shape of the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, this week endorsed that paper’s successor, the Sun on Sunday, with a weekly column which began: “What a fantastic honour to be given the opportunity to write a column in the first ever Sunday Sun. Today is a new dawn. A fresh start.”. At least one other bishop pronounced himself “astonished” at Dr Sentamu’s involvement in the new Murdoch enterprise.

In the event the new paper was dull and bland. There was a reason for that. It was to allow Rupert Murdoch to say that his journalists had turned over a new leaf or made a new beginning, as Sentamu’s Sunday Service put it.

The next day it became clear why the paper had been launched when it was – and in an enormous hurry its executives privately told the Financial Times. On Monday the Leveson inquiry turned its attention from the press to the police. In the process of exposing the Metropolitan Police cover-up of phone-hacking on the News of the World shocking new allegations of illegal behaviour by Murdoch journalists were laid bare.  Senior staff had set up accounting systems to make anonymous payments to police, prison staff, civil servants and others, creating a “network of corrupted officials” to provide salacious stories. One public servant received more than £80,000. US prosecutors will now be looking at Mr Murdoch’s US parent company under their Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The Archbishop of York sought to justify his involvement by saying that a religion of forgiveness means giving people second chances – though Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more rather than moving in with her. And theologians might debate whether forgiveness can be applied to institutions as well as individuals.

But the scale of the scandal in News International is another matter. We now know that it paid more than £1m to its chief phonehacker and that the Metropolitan Police, years ago, knew there were 829 victims and possibly thousands more. All of which by some way exceeds the gospel benchmark that the number of times that forgiveness should be extended is seventy times seven.

Mr Murdoch had to get his new paper out before all this broke. He managed it by one day, which was enough to get advertisers and 3.2 million readers on board. Whether they will stay there is another matter, despite his protestation that the new practices disclosed at Leveson “are ones of the past and no longer exist at The Sun.

Charlotte Church, for one, does not believe that. Her concern is not just with journalists hiding cameras low in bushes to take pictures up her skirt – or hacking phones to produce, as NI lawyers admitted in court, 33 articles from her family’s voicemails. It is not even with the way Murdoch journalists coerced her mother into giving them a big interview about her self-harming and attempted suicide. Nothing was deemed off limits to sell newspapers.

The reason Ms Church stopped the court case and settled, she said, was that the top Murdoch lawyer,  Michael Silverleaf QC, had revealed that his future tactics in the case would involve pleading guilty to the phone-hacking, so the paper’s executives couldn’t be cross-examined, but would subject the singer’s mother to a rigorous in-court  psychological analysis.

“They were just going to drag my parents through the mud again and I couldn’t let that happen,” she said. “The fact they played it that way, to me, says they learned nothing.” In my opinion, she concluded, “they are not truly sorry, only sorry they got caught”. Go and sin no more, the man said.

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