Every journalist knows that breaking the law is inexcusable - except, of course, where there is an excuse. As a general rule, what I write, however obtained, is in the public interest. What you write is money-grubbing prurience. Now what was that juicy story you told me the other day?
The News of the World scandal is in danger of submerging the body politic in a wave of hypocrisy. The paper did what some newspapers have long done, which is scrape the dustbin of gossip in whic lurks the fame of all public figures. Aided by electronic surveillance, journalists use private detectives, hackers, oddballs and dodgy policemen to dig the dirt on behalf of their readers and shareholders. They usually pay money, even if this is not allowed.
Sometimes, as with the Daily Telegraph on MPs' expenses, we are served copper-bottomed sensation. Although the scoop was allegedly based on payments for theft, the world cheered the "public interest". Other times, as with the (Princess) Dianagate tapes, salacious material is uncovered with no shred of public interest but which no amount of self-restraint could keep from the public eye. In the case of the News of the World, the ease with which mobile phones can be eavesdropped on supplied a mountain of celebrity gossip.
Human Rights law may offer "a right to respect for private and family life, home and conversation", but this is merely a pious hope. When a cloud of secret range-finders can hover over the mobile phones of the stars, policing is near impossible. Hackers can squat in caravans or attics, equipped from any backstreet store. The News of the World gained access to thousands of phone messages. These could as easily have been posted on the web.
Although the police have decided to take no further action, the case raises intriguing but tangential issues. It is implausible for the former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, to plead that he did not know what was going on. No editor would be left in the dark about the costly source of such scoops. Even a remark that "I would rather not know" admits responsibility.
When a member of the paper's staff, Clive Goodman, went to jail in 2007 for a hacking offence, a parliamentary committee was told that he was a “rotten apple” and an isolated case. We now learn that Coulson’s staff had access to thousands of mobile phone records, all illegally obtained and currently in the hands of the police.
The paper then lavishly paid off some of its victims on condition of confidentiality, while the police (and Crown Prosecution Service) agreed to turn a blind eye. They neither pursued other offences by News of the World reporters nor informed those whose private lives they knew to have been compromised. The police appeared to collude in a massive breach of privacy.
The much-vaunted framework of parliamentary oversight and media self-regulation was also left looking idiotic. We have been told for 18 years that the presence of working editors on the voluntary Press Complaints Commission brings a weight of expertise and judgement to its decisions. This is selfserving rubbish, trotted out by successive PCC chairmen who enjoy cavorting with the barons of media power.
The case for non-statutory regulation of the press remains strong, but depends heavily on that regulation being scrupulous and outspoken, as it largely was under the old Press Council with its vigorous chairmen. The present Press Complaints Commission claims to work its magic "behind the scenes". It works no magic. It is dead.
None of this impinges on the central issue of the News of the World case, that chaos now surrounds the confidentiality of electronic data in Britain. That law-breaking now depends wholly on the “robustness” of an excuse is hopeless. Most people accepted that the Telegraph was justified in using stolen information to reveal details of MPs’ expenses. But the argument was tested neither in the courts nor before the PCC. It was granted by acclamation.
© Simon Jenkins “The Guardian”, 10th July 2009
Choose the option (a, b or c) which fits best according to the text.
1.- According to the author, the News of the World scandal shows that
a. journalists draw a fine line between public and private lives.
b. journalists' priorities lie with news of celebrities.
c. journalists using devious means to get compromising information is not new.
2.- The author expresses his concern about the fact that
a. electronic information can be highly vulnerable.
b. Human Rights Law can affect anyone at any time.
c. there is confusion between human rights and private lives.
3.- According to the author, the business surrounding Clive Goodman's imprisonment
a. an irresponsible individual can compromise an entire newspaper.
b. journalists pay huge amounts to get exclusives.
c. newspapers are usually aware of their employees' unethical practices.
4.- The author is critical of the PCC because it is
a. a voluntary initiative.
c. manipulated by the media bosses.
5.- According to the author, the ethical problems in the Telegraph case focus on
a. politicians misuse of public money.
b. the highly intrusive nature of the press.
c. the influence of popular approval on how news is gathered.
ANSWER KEY1. C