The national phone fiddling scandal, which had been brewing nicely all through the last week of the Parliamentary recess, came to the floor of the House yesterday when Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was dragged there in order to answer a question on the subject.

“Dragged there” is official Parliamentary terminology for what happens when ministers have to answer an emergency question, rather than volunteer a statement. Like much Parliamentary terminology it is not to be taken literally. A point of order, for example, very rarely turns out to be a point, or even in order, and it used to be the case, until the current buzzy little incumbent came along, that Mr Speaker generally didn’t speak very much. Anyway Mrs May was dragged, though not literally. She probably walked there in one of her kittenish pairs of shoes. These days, however, since she is the Home Secretary, we should learn to think of Mrs May as something other than five and a half feet of not very interesting on top of a set of photogenic footware.

The problem with this is that for 30 minutes yesterday Mrs May was not very interesting. She had one thing to say, which is that if there is new evidence about phone fiddling at the News of the World, the police will look into it, and she said it about 20 times. She would argue in her defence that that is because she was asked the same question about 20 times, but that it is a pathetic excuse. Most parliamentary statements (alright emergency questions) resolve themselves into answering the same point about 20 times and the talented minister is the one who learns to colour their stock reply with all the shades of emotion from gravitas to condescension to irony to rage. There was none of this tonal plenty about Mrs May’s responses, which may be a career mistake on her part at a time when the Treasury’s bean-counters could easily notice that it would be cheaper to replace the Home Secretary with an automated voicemail message.

And probably, given the Home Office’s long-standing predeliction for leaving its most precious stuff on the seats of trains, less of a security risk. Otherwise we are given to believe by that major force in British investigative journalism, the New York Times, that that other major force in British investigative journalism, the News of the World, enjoyed carte blanche to listen in to the telephone messages of pretty much whoever it chose. The day the Met popped round to look into this matter they found long lists of vaguely-famous people, their mobile phone details and their pin numbers and it is a mildly obvious conclusion that the News of the World did not possess this information because they were thinking of going into competition with 192.  On the contrary, it seems fair enough to think that the paper was in the business of gathering information on its targets by subterfuge which, looked at one way, is a step-up in the standards of tabloid journalism from the reasonably-held belief that they just sit back and make the stuff up.

A certain cachet attaches to learning that your name was on the News of the World’s list. It is a little like being a member of the Holiday Inn’s priority club. You don’t have to be especially distinguished to make it, but not everybody gets there.  Certainly Labour’s Chris Bryant seemed to be glowing with a bit of pride as well as radiating a lot of anger when he complained to Mrs May that the police had never bothered to look into his case.  Later his Labour colleague, Jack Dromey, said that it was a perfect disgrace that Mr Bryant had been hacked into.  Mr Bryant is gay and – he will not object to this description I think – inclined to be somewhat flamboyant about it.  Mr Dromey is married to Labour’s matriarch Harriet Harman and so, one imagines, is not much used to the sound of laughter. Certainly he was both surprised and irritated that the House should find it rather amusing to imagine exactly what hacking into Mr Bryant might look like.

Otherwise, the session passed in an orgy of predictability. There were a couple of Tories  who could be bothered to haul themselves to their feet to denounce the whole affair as a politically-motivated smear against Andy Coulson, Mr Cameron’s spin doctor-in-chief who also inconveniently turns out to have been the editor of the News of the World at the time. Mostly, however, the field was left to the Labour backbenches who fulminated in various keys about the paper’s scandalous behaviour and the Metropolitan Police’s failure to get them bang to rights.

Two men, it should be remembered, did go to prison for this, but the News of the World is a Murdoch paper and Labour members will not be rest easy until every denizen of that evil empire is behind bars. Headed of course by Mr Coulson who, in the event that he were ever convicted of being the nation’s top phone fiddler, would find his time in jail an unpleasant one, dodging armed robbers anxious to lay about him with an iron bar.


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