When phone hacking could be justified

By Theresa Mallinson 6 August 2011

The Metro's recycling of Guardian journalist David Leigh's 2006 admission that he listened in on an arms company's executive’s cellphone message has provoked cries of “Hypocrisy!” on the interwebs. But the Metro article failed to mention Leigh's public-interest defence. It's a good time to reflect on when the end justifies the means. By THERESA MALLINSON.

On Friday the UK free-sheet Metro ran an article headlined: “Guardian journalist: Phone hacking gave me a ‘thrill’”. The story, sans the sensationalism, is in 2006 the Guardian’s then investigations editor, David Leigh, now an assistant editor at the paper, wrote that he had used some “questionable methods” of investigation. Commenting on former News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman’s admission to phone-hacking, Leigh stated: “I, too, once listened to the mobile phone messages of a corrupt arms company executive – the crime similar to that for which Goodman now faces the prospect of jail. The trick was a simple one: The businessman in question had inadvertently left his pin code on a print-out and all that was needed was to dial straight into his voicemail.”

While the Metro chose to reprint excerpts from Leigh’s original article, including, “There is certainly a voyeuristic thrill in hearing another person’s private messages” and “As for actually breaking the law? Well, it is hard to keep on the right side of legality on all occasions”, it gave little space to his reflections on when journalists are justified in employing dubious practices, noting merely that Leigh had listened to voice mails: “to investigate and expose ‘bribery and corruption’ – not ‘tittle-tattle’.”

In the full article in the Guardian, Leigh presents a more thoughtful defence: “I think the rule should be that deceptions, lies and stings should only be used as a last resort, and only when it is clearly in the public interest. And, as for actually breaking the law? Well, it is hard to keep on the right side of legality on all occasions. Like most investigative journalists, I have had my share of confidence injunctions, lost libel actions and threats of prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act.”

Few online papers have picked up the story, perhaps because it’s already old news. Metro politics editor John Higginson, who wrote the article, loudly boasted of an “EXCLUSIVE” on Twitter, but the story was hardly that. Never mind Leigh’s original article, the BBC referenced it in a story in April this year.

Right now, Leigh is on holiday, and Daily Maverick received an automated out-of-office reply when it tried to contact him. An email from the Guardian’s press office stated that Leigh wrote his article “openly and transparently” and “The piece itself was a discussion about what journalistic behaviour is justified by the public interest”.

These are good points and show the attempt to place Leigh in the same bracket as less scrupulous hacks (and hackers) to be little more than intellectual laziness. It’s not that difficult to discern the difference between listening to a murdered girl’s voice messages, and those of a corrupt arms company executive. To put it simply, the latter is in the public interest, the former is not.

In case you need a reminder of the difference between public interest, and what’s of interest to the public, The UK’s Press Complaints Commission defines public interest as follows:

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health and safety.
iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. Whenever the public interest is invoked, the PCC will require editors to demonstrate fully that they reasonably believed that publication, or journalistic activity undertaken with a view to publication, would be in the public interest.

The PCC code also specifically states public interest can be used to justify otherwise prohibited practices, including “using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices, [and] intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails…”

The Guardian meanwhile, is downplaying Metro’s attempts to stir up controversy. But a three-paragraph statement by an unnamed spokeswoman, including the line, “The Guardian does not authorise and has not authorised phone hacking” doesn’t quite cut it. For one thing, that sentence, phrased as it is, sounds uncomfortably close to a certain Piers Morgan’s standard denial.

Furthermore, the Guardian chose not to mention the Metro’s story in its “Today’s media stories from the papers” media briefing online. One can understand this reticence, if not condone it. Leigh’s article was old news, and the Guardian may feel it doesn’t want to get involved in an unnecessary fight with a straw man. But this isn’t stopping Guardian-haters on Twitter from yelling “hypocrisy”!

By not responding in any depth, the newspaper has missed the chance to use the Metro article as a platform for debate on journalistic ethics – and restate its own position in the process. Editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger outlines the Guardian’s ethics vis-a-vis getting stories pretty clearly in an online Q&A on phone-hacking. No payment for stories; no private investigators without Rusbridger’s permission and a general guideline that “the greater the possible intrusion by journalists, the higher the public interest hurdle has to be”.

We can’t see any harm in reiterating this stance, as well as reminding the British public of the conditions for public interest. As the New York Magazine] pointed out when referring to Leigh’s article: “[His] nuanced moral argument is unlikely to win over many people in Britain given the current climate of outrage.” It’s time for the Guardian to recast that argument – in the context of August 2011, not December 2006. DM

Read more:

  • Guardian Journalist: phone hacking gave me a ‘thrill’, in Metro
  • Scandal on tap, in The Guardian
  • A Guardian reporter confessed to phone hacking in 2006,in the Atlantic Wire

Photo: Screen grab of the Metro’s phone-hacking “exclusive”.


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