The Leveson inquiry and why we should not abandon investigative journalism
The inquiry into the conduct around the actions of the News of The World has started in earnest. After the revelations of just exactly what News International has done this, for many people, could not have come soon enough. Yet, care must be taken as we venture down the path of this Judge lead inquiry.
The actions of the the Murdock Media have been well documented and more and more revelations are coming out all the time. Most recently the whole Hack Gate saga has been extended to the world of Spooks with an MI5 trained private investigator being hired to follow people of interest to, at lest, the New of The World, if not others. It should be pointed out that whilst phone hacking is in its self an illegal invasion of privacy, following someone is not. In fact tailing someone is almost exactly the activity one imagines occupying the majority of a private investigators working day.
The Leveson inquiry, as it is now known, declared last Monday that phone hacking, the major issue being explored, was not limited to News of The World but that Glen Mulcaire- a name destined to stand as a footnote in media law for generations to come- had also acted on behalf of The Sun and the Daily Mirror. This not only further discredits the original claim from the various people at the top of Murdoch Media that phone hacking was a technique used by just a single rogue reporter and that it was in no way endemic in News International, but also begs the question; which papers didn’t do it? After all it is a technique that gets results.
Incidentally I feel that this opportunity to point out the hypocrisy of a tabloid newspaper cannot be missed. I would therefore like to bring your attention to this article in which the Daily Mirror describes the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone as “indefensible behavior”. By claiming the moral high ground on this issue the Daily Mirror must surely have felt rather disingenuous knowing full well that they had used the same private investigator using the same, as Mr Cameron put it all the way back in July, “totally sick” tactics.
Or is it the target that the Daily Mirror, our politicians and indeed the general public have a problem with. Phone hacking, it must be remembered, is not a new technique. The content of the voice mails of countless celebrities have been plastered all over the tabloid press for years and there seemed to be almost no outcry, except a few disgruntled celebrities who, every so often, would receive multi million pound pay-offs, for this breach of privacy. In fact this compensation looked increasingly like the regular payments newspapers and glossy magazines alike would pay to the very same celebrities for kiss and tell interviews.
As a public we loved it. Stories of so-and-so’s divorce or what’s-his-names messy affair with that other one off the telly sold newspapers like hot cakes. Much of this information would have been gained through illegal acts such as phone hacking. But it’s ok, isn’t it, when they make their money by being in the public eye? Surely if they make their money entertaining the seething masses they have no right to privacy. And why stop there, the logic seems to follow, if there is a major police investigation into such-and-such a death don’t the public have a right to know all the details?
Investigative journalism can, however, be about so much more than the sordid details of a broken marriage and the printing of newspapers can be about more than just money. In the past it has been investigative journalists that have brought down presidents for corruption and wrong doing. Watergate is one of the defining moments in american politics and had a lasting impact on how the press act around the world. Closer to home and more recently the Telegraph’s own ‘expensesgate’ uncovered abuse of privileges and in some cases illegal, fraudulent acts committed by members of parliament. The Telegraph’s reports may well have had to break laws in obtaining this information and certainly invaded the privacy of hundreds of people. Newspapers play a vital role in checking the actions of those that run the country and we must allow them the legal and moral space to do this. To achieve this we need our newspaper editors to use moral judgement in the tactics they use in pursuing a story and we need to be conscious about the stories we, as a reading public, consume.
Ultimately just because something is illegal does not mean a reporter should not do it and this is something I hope that the Laveson inquiry does not miss. Just because this time phone hacking targeted a dead teenager does not mean that next time it wont be a corrupt politician. There must remain the idea of a public interest defense. To stifle this essential check on politicians would harm accountability and would not be in the public interest.