Thursday, October 9, 2014

The most depressing story of 2011: five thoughts on phone-hacking

There's been just one media story in 2011 so far - but to date, we've done our level best to avoid writing anything about the whole phone-hacking mess.

It is, self-evidently, a huge story, but it's one we find it hard to get excited about. The Guardian's dogged pursuit of the story should be admirable, but their holier-than-thou attitude just comes off as plain irritating. And the long-term implications are profoundly depressing.

There's also the very real risk that with acres of newsprint and hundreds of online articles already having been devoted to the topic, we won't have anything new to say on it. So, rather than attempting to offer a wise and balanced verdict on the whole sorry affair (for which you'd do much better to read this piece by Simon Jenkins), we'll offer just the five following thoughts:

1) The legal issues are not quite as black and white as some would have you believe. & nbsp;Yes, intercepting someone else's calls & nbsp;is a criminal offence according to Section 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and there is no public interest defence (quite why, we're not sure...). But as the Independent reports, initial legal advice received by the Crown Prosecution Service suggested that 'if intercepted phone messages had already been heard by its intended recipient, then listening in wasn't a crime'. That's now changed - 'the DPP's new interpretation is broader', we're told - but the whole area is murky at best. And while journalists may have been clear that accessing voicemails was against the law, other common journalistic practices which may come under scrutiny - recording phone calls, accessing databases, publishing leaked information - clearly exist in a very grey legal area.

2) It's hard to feel sorry for the 'victims'. Sorry, but it is. Actors, pop stars, footballers, politicians... they're all entitled to a degree of privacy, it's true. But in the wider scheme of things, if you look through the annals of journalistic transgressions and count up all the awful things hacks have done to people over the years - and there are a few of them - listening in to Andy Gray's voicemail messages probably isn't at the top.

3) It's not just about the News of the World. If you haven't already heard the tales, then to get an idea of how prevalent 'screwing' used to be, have a glance at this Press Gazette article from back in 2006. It happened everywhere - on other red-tops, on Sunday broadsheets - and all the time. Our favourite quote? The former News of the World staffer who told the Press Gazette: 'When I was on the paper there was a war between the features department and news. Features would hack into the phone of somebody who was on the newsdesk to see what story they might be working on.'

4) It's not just about phone hacking anymore. The story the whole phone hacking scandal most reminds us of is the MPs' expenses brouhaha, where what started off as a targeted critique of politicians' expense-claiming became a general free-for-all and an excuse to give the political class a good kicking. There are key differences here, of course - it's smaller scale, there's no smoking gun disk to drip-feed new angles from and the media itself is much less willing to fan the flames. But the keenest critics of the media - and some of them are in fact MPs perhaps relishing a bit of post-expenses payback - want to make this about much more than phone-hacking, and broaden it into a wider debate about journalistic ethics. Remember 'blagging' and Operation Motorman? Well, everything dodgy a newspaper has ever done is now fair game. Which leads us to the fifth and final point...

5) & nbsp;No good will come of it all. There will be no satisfactory outcome or happy conclusion to the phone-hacking affair, for journalists at least. Our public reputation has fallen still lower (good news for estate agents...). The Government is now planning to bypass the Press Complaints Commission and 'tighten up on the activities of newspapers'. And while the Guardian may have been celebrated claiming the scalp of Andy Coulson, they may live to regret their victory. Others have already pointed out the apparent disconnect between the Guardian's respect for privacy when it comes to phone hacking and their respect for supposedly private information obtained via Wikileaks. As Stephen Glover put it in the Mail on Sunday: 'There is surely a gulf in standards between the newspaper's sense of self-congratulation in publishing these private cables and its excoriation of the News of the World for doing something that in many respects was very similar.'

That's not to say he's right, of course. There is a clear difference between hacking into someone's phone to chase a Sienna Miller scoop and using leaked cables to lift the lid on international diplomacy. But not everyone sees it that way - and the & nbsp;Guardian is unlikely to be spared in any crackdown on aggressive, grey-area journalism which results from the phone-hacking furore it helped to create.

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