Londoners call it “storm sewage.” Heavy rain causes hundreds of thousands of tons of the stuff to spill into the majestic River Thames. Fish suffocate, and a stink hangs over some very pricey riverside residences just a few miles from the Houses of Parliament. A 20 mile long “super sewer” is being built to end this disgrace, in the teeth of protests from those opposed to a concrete monster in their own backyards.

Something similar has been happening to British public life. Last summer, the world came to London for an Olympic Games that, for a while, seemed to reattach the "Great” to Britain. It was the perfect patriotic climax to a year that included a royal wedding and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. Meanwhile, a stench was seeping out from an underground river of criminality, perversion and corruption. Barely a month after the closing ceremony of the Olympiad, the build up of noxious fumes caused the first man hole covers to blow.

An enquiry headed by the Bishop of Liverpool into the 1989 disaster at Hill sborough football stadium in which 96 fans died exposed a scandalous cover up by police. The Sun, the Rupert Murdoch owned, top selling newspaper, was forced to apologize for its own part in this. In an editorial headlined “We are sorry for our gravest error,” the tabloid said senior police officers had “fabricated lurid allegations about Liverpool fans” which The Sun had then reported as fact, including the disgusting lie that Liverpool supporters had picked the pockets of dead victims. “The people of Liverpool may never forgive us for the injustice we did them,” The Sun lamented.


This turned out to be a prelude to a whole cascade of filth.

In October, the main commercial television channel broadcast a documentary about one of the BBC’s biggest stars of light entertainment, Jimmy Savile, who died last year at the age of 84.

For decades, Savile had been one of the UK’s top celebrities, knighted by the Queen for his charitable work with hospitals and young people. The documentary alleged that for decades Savile had also been sexually abusing vulnerable young girls.

What made this even more controversial was that the BBC, the best known and most trusted media brand in the world, had previously commissioned its own exposé about Savile, but had decided not to air it.

This folly was then compounded.

In a bid to restore its honor, the BBC’s flagship current affairs program, News night, commissioned the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to help it report into separate child abuse allegations in Wales. One of the male victims told Newsnight that a senior member of the ruling Conservative Party was among the abusers. News night made no attempt to check this before broadcast on Nov. 2. Lord McAlpine, a former Conservative treasurer, was then falsely named online as the subject of the claim, which the accuser later retracted.

Publicity about Savile’s pedophilia persuaded victims to come forth, and allegations made to police against Savile, for abuse between 1959 and 2006, now total 450. Some of the assaults are alleged to have taken place in Savile’s BBC dressing room; others were in hospital wards to which he had privileged access.

For Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, and the head of the BBC’s governing body, it was “a cesspit.”

Rumbling away in the background was the multiplying scandal over illegal phone hacking and corruption of public officials by the British tabloids, chiefly those owned by Murdoch. This had already led to the closure of Murdoch’s News of the World, and the arrest of several of his current and former employees, including a former press secretary to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Lord Justice Leveson’s 17month enquiry into the “Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press” will best be remembered for the victims of press persecution who testified: the parents of Milly Dowler, whose voicemail was hacked by the News of the World after she had been murdered; the smeared parents of Madeleine McCann, branded as suspects in her disappearance a few days before her fourth birthday; Chris Jefferies, wrongly arrested for murder in 2011, and who later received substantial libel damages from eight British newspapers that had portrayed him as some kind of monster; Harry Potter author JK Rowling, stalked by paparazzi outside her home, one of whom slipped a note into her daughter's school bag; Margaret and James Watson, whose daughter was stabbed to death in a playground attack, and who visited the offices of the Glasgow Herald to complain about its reporting of her as a bully, only to be told to wait inside a store room used by cleaning staff. The Watson’s son later committed suicide.

Another, more exotic, victim was motor racing executive Max Mosley, son of the British fascist politician Oswald Mosley. The following account comes from the book Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman.

In his own time, Mosley occasionally participated in sado-masochistic orgies. Although not ashamed of this activity, he was aware that many people would disapprove of it and kept it from his wife, family and colleagues. . . . [A] forthcoming participant at one of Mosley’s parties, known as ‘Michelle’, had mentioned his name to her husband, an MI5 agent, who realized Mosley might make a valuable story and contacted the News of the World. [Reporter Neville] Thurlbeck offered ‘Michelle’ £25,000 and coached her how to record Mosley performing a Sieg Heil salute.

Perhaps most surprising of all was the transformation of romantic comedy actor Hugh Grant, whose many fans in Asia have turned the location of his best known film, Notting Hill, into a London pilgrimage site. Grant’s sexual indiscretions and numerous affairs made him a favorite target of tabloid black arts, from phone hacking to paparazzi stalking.

This turned Grant from a self deprecating, tousle haired heart throb into a highly articulate, armour plated and pugnacious scourge of the British press. As the public face of the “Hacked Off” campaign by phone hacking victims, Grant became a hate figure of tabloid wolverines like Amanda Platell, another former press secretary to a Conservative Party leader, who described him as an "oleaginous, womanising lounge lizard."

In December, Leveson released his 1,987 page report. At a London press conference, he blasted newspapers for “wreaking havoc with the lives of innocent people,” and called for legislation to underpin “a genuinely independent and effective system of self regulation” by the press. He then promptly boarded a flight to Australia as a political storm erupted over whether this would compromise press freedom.

As of this writing, nothing has been decided on Leveson’s recommendations. Instead, as the year ended, yet more noxious scandals bubbled to the surface.

HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, was fined a record $1.9 billion by U.S. authorities for laundering money from Mexican drug cartels and Russian mafia and violating sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

Then came another report into a cover up, that of the 1989 terrorist murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane. In a statement to Parliament, Prime Minister Cameron acknowledged “shocking levels of collusion” between state security forces in Northern Ireland and Finucane’s murderers.

A year to remember, indeed.

Peter McGill is a former Tokyo correspondent of The Observer and FCCJ president.


THE EDITORS IN CHIEF OF THE UK’S NATIONAL NEWSPAPERS ARE RARELY SEEN together in public, so when they meekly trooped along Downing Street on Dec. 4 to receive a dressing down by the prime minister, Channel Four TV news could not resist comparing the scene to a meeting of the Mafia Five Families in New York, and cheekily played the theme tune from The Godfather.

What brought them together was the threat of official sanction if they failed to put their own house in order. A history of backsliding on past commitments had convinced Lord Justice Leveson that the media could not be relied upon to police itself without some form of legal oversight.

the spluttering torch of truth and justice. Still, there was no way of avoiding a display of public humility. David Cameron impressed upon the editors seated around the cabinet table at No. 10 Downing Street that their only hope of avoiding statute lay in serious self reform.

Cooperation does not come easily to the British press. The sacrifice of moral standards to the all consuming goal of scooping the competition and boosting circulation lay at the heart of the serial offences catalogued by Leveson.

In the absence of any legal restraint, the temptation to bend and break ethical rules may prove overwhelming in the heat of battle.

— PM