The need for the right-leaning part of our free and fearless press to find more and better excuses for running cheap personal smear jobs on politicians and celebrities they happen to dislike was nowhere seen to better advantage than when the Murdoch press was caught using illegally gathered information to take out a party leadership candidate - except that the contest happened more than a decade ago.
After the Lib Dems unwisely moved against Charles Kennedy in 2006, several of their MPs declared an interest in the leadership. The Murdoch mafiosi immediately went into dirt digging mode: they had already taken out Mark Oaten via an exposé in the late and not at all lamented Screws, and soon homed in on Simon Hughes. He apparently volunteered to give a confessional interview to veteran Murdoch enforcer Trevor Kavanagh.
Except, as a Byline Media piece has made plain, Hughes’ actions were far from voluntary: the Sun had illegally obtained call information for his phone, which revealed that he had called a gay chatline. And, although Kavanagh has since protested that the his story had not come about as a result of phone hacking, that’s only because the Sun’s illegally obtained information enabled it to crack the story without hacking being needed.
The Screws was also on Hughes’ case, and had hacked his mobile voicemail. They just weren’t as quick as the Sun to stand up their story. And what is fascinating about contemporary accounts is that none question how the information was being obtained. Even the Guardian merely told “The Sun - or its Murdoch Sunday sister, the NoW - had proof he used a gay chatline. It pounced. So when Mr Hughes said yesterday he had ‘chosen’ to speak out in the Sun he was stretching a point”.
They got the leverage, but not the illegality. In fact, they got the leverage twice, another piece musing “Whatever the reasoning, he surely would not have chosen the Sun, a paper unable to mention homosexuality without sly innuendo and thinly-veiled repugnance (‘Another one bites the pillow’, it says today) to out himself”.
It was only at the time of the Leveson Inquiry that questions were asked. The Guardian again: “Hughes said he did not know how the Sun had obtained the telephone records but that he believed the paper had no public interest in his sexuality. ‘It was a character assassination, not backed up by anything,’ he added”. And Kavanagh was plain evasive.
“Kavanagh indicated that he did not know the source of the Sun's information about Hughes's use of a gay chatline. He said: ‘I don't know where the original tip for the story came from. I am sure it was not obtained through phone hacking’”. If he was so sure it was not a phone hacking product, how come he did not know what it was from?
What the latest revelations show is that, perhaps, questions were not being asked about other illegal information gathering activities at the time, as so much attention was focused on phone hacking. And what they will then show is that, despite being caught using illegally obtained information to use as leverage on a target, Trevor Kavanagh will retain his place on the board of sham press regulator IPSO.
Our free and fearless press - as bent now as it has ever been. No change there, then.