– updated 26.01.07
“I have a special project for you. Walk this way.” The news editor beckoned the young reporter towards a quiet corridor just aside from the newsroom. He raised his right forefinger towards his mouth, and outlined what he wanted the journalist to do.
The reporter had a background in investigations for World in Action and other television current affairs programmes, and, having returned to newspapers, had started regular reporting shifts at this particular title.
“The investigations you are doing are all very well, but they take too long to reach fruition. So, our special project: you must find private detectives willing to conduct enquiries for us discreetly. We have plenty of resources for it.” He wanted private detectives to obtain telephone, banking and criminal records.
How do I know about this exchange? Because I was the reporter.
So, was this the tawdry News of the World? No.
Some other red-top? No. It was a broadsheet.
This conversation took place before the data prot-ection act of 1998 was enacted. It did not occur to me then that following the instruction might have meant breaking the law. At the time, it might not have done. However, it just felt wrong to me.
While I accept that extraordinary steps may, sometimes, exceptionally, be necessary to stand up a story of public interest, this was not the case here. The paper wanted private detectives for fishing expeditions, trawling for tit-bits about rich and famous people. And it preferred this to investigative research, such as using “freedom of information” laws and other “open-access” provisions.
I side-stepped this particular “special project”; nothing more was said about it to me; and my shifts at that newspaper were discontinued a short while later.
Last year, journalist friends of mine laughed at my suggestion that they had to stop using illegal methods to obtain personal information. As the royal editor of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, admitted charges of unlawfully intercept-ing telephone messages, and as police swooped on the newspaper’s offices in east London’s Wapping, they are not laughing now.
Some journalists have become distinctly nervous as the police have widened their investigation into the alleged interception of telephone messages of royal aides.
They are also investigating whether others fell victim to “phone screwing”: celebrities – Hugh Grant, Jemima Khan, Keira Knightley and John Leslie have been identified as possible targets – sports figures, such as Sven Goran Eriksson, who faced disclosures when he was England football manager about his affair with the television presenter, Ulrika Jonsson, and politicians, including David Blunkett and Boris Johnson, both of whom were embroiled in revelations about affairs.
I wrote several articles last year for the FOIA Centre website news section, Press Gazette, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, and The Journalist, the national union of journalists (NUJ) magazine, about how journalists were putting themselves and their employers at risk of prosecution for breaching data-protection and other laws.
Reporters might be surprised to discover, I warn-ed, that they often commit a crime when obtaining material from a private detective or bin scavenger. No one can be surprised now.
The police and the information commissioner, who regulates the data protection act, had compiled long lists of journalists who had allegedly obtained information illegally, and they were shaping up to take action. I warned that journalists needed to stop breaking the law by using private detectives and the like to obtain personal data.
“Fat chance,” many journalists told me. Newspap-ers had become addicted to the “dark arts” of their trade, everything from using private detectives and others to obtain telephone, banking and criminal records, through paying for documents scavenged from bins, to hacking into telephone voicemails and texts.
I had just written a book, The Fleet Street Sewer Rat, detailing the activities of Benji “the binman” Pell, who trawled the rubbish of advisors to the rich and famous for documents to sell to newspapers. The book revealed a long roll-call of victims included a wide range of celebrities, sports stars, politicians and business people.
The book recounts how the information comm-issioner investigated a complaint by Lord Levy, the Labour party fund-raiser, about how his tax details were obtained by The Sunday Times.
I later uncovered, under the freedom of information act (FOIA), correspondence showing that the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, urged Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the press complaints commission (PCC), to produce a “clear public statement warning journalists and editors of the very real risks of committing criminal offences.”
In response, the PCC issued guidance to editors last year saying that a journalist would be committing an offence by obtaining, or asking someone to else to obtain, personal details from a “data controller” without consent, such as telephone records from a telephone company. It suggested that a journalist might have a defence if the action was in the public interest.
However, the correspondence showed that Thom-as felt that the PCC’s guidance was too weak. The courts, he said, “would consider that the public interest in the obtaining of the information in question would have to be extremely strong to justify obtaining information dishonestly.”
Journalists and private investigators have exploited a security weakness to tap into mobile telephone voicemail. The same problem applies to landline answer machines, although this is often overlooked in the mainstream media’s coverage of the current investigation.
Messages can generally be accessed remotely using a password code. These systems typically have default code settings, such as four zeros. A hacker can intercept such messages if the user has failed to change default settings or uses obvious passwords such as birth dates.
Journalists on rival newspapers, and sometimes working for different departments on the same title, have even tapped into each other’s voicemail messages.
James Hipwell, a Daily Mirror journalist between 1998 and 2000, who was jailed earlier this year for his part in the City Slickers share-tipping affair, said that voicemail hacking was widespread at tabloid newspapers, including his own title while he worked there. “Many Daily Mirror stories would come from hacking into a celebrity's voicemail,” he said.
Targets had included the Spice Girls, he said, and a Mirror journalist even once deleted a voicemail message from one band member’s phone to stop The Sun obtaining it.
The News of the World has suspended Goodman, pending the completion of the case against him (he awaits sentencing). However, I hope we do not see reporters being made scapegoats.
The practice of real journalism has been jeopardiz-ed as newspapers have savagely cut back on time-consuming, sometimes costly investigative report-ing and instead have put pressure on journalists to resort to these “dark arts”. Real responsibility for that lies not with reporters but higher up the management chain.
I have already suggested to the NUJ’s ethics committee that its code of conduct be amended to say explicitly that a member of the union should not publish or obtain information taken either from a rubbish bag/bin left outside a home or office or in breach of section 55 of the data protection act of 1998, whether that material is taken by the member or by another party, unless there are over-riding public-interest considerations.
As the FOIA Centre argued in a commentary last April, journalists in Britain employ exotic methods of gathering information because they face an entrenched culture of secrecy. There must be a quid pro quo: a society that rejects journalists’ practice of paying private detectives or bin scavengers for confidential information must also rid itself of obsessive secrecy.
Newspapers – broadsheets and tabloids alike – have preferred to spend ever-more restricted resources on the quick-fire “dark arts” to gather information, especially for celebrity tittle tattle, rather than invest in legitimate methods to find real news. That will have to change.
Some newspapers have turned to FOIA research as a legitimate method of information gathering. The Guardian hired a FOIA specialist reporter, Rob Evans, to exploit the new legislation, and it has broken several significant stories as a consequence. Many newspapers have taken advantage of the experience and expertise of the FOIA Centre to carry out FOIA research for them, and they have made a lot of revelations as a result, some examples of which can be seen on our website's news section.
So, the FOIA Centre has a clear interest in encouraging newspapers to invest in FOIA research. FOIA was enacted in 2000 but only enforced last year, and the founders of the FOIA Centre had feared that the inevitable difficulties in making and pursuing FOIA requests, as well as obstruction by public bodies, would deter people from using the new law.
One key motivation behind the setting up of the FOIA Centre in 2001 was to encourage people, including the media, to use FOIA and other open-access laws. The FOIA Centre has had a good deal of success in that aim, and it intends to build on that.
And newspapers may see clearer than ever before the benefits of turning legit.
A curb on the “dark arts” will ultimately be good for journalism. As newspapers realise the legal risks they run by forcing reporters to engage in them, they will have to return to real journalism – digging out real news.
26.01.07 update: Goodman was today sentenced to four months in prison. His co-accused, Glenn Mulcaire, an investigator paid more than £100,000 a year by the News of the World, was sentenced to six months.
Hours after the sentencing, Andy Coulson ann-ounced his resignation as editor of the News of the World. Coulson had formally resigned two weeks previously, but delayed his departure until Goodman’s sentencing today.
In an e-mail to staff, Coulson said: “I have decided that the time has come for me to take ultimate responsibility for the events around the Clive Goodman case.”
“As I’ve said before, his actions were entirely wrong and I deeply regret that they happened on my watch.
“I also feel strongly that when the News of the World calls those in public life to account on behalf of its readers, it must have its own house in order.”
Other versions of this article first appeared in Press Gazette and Journalist, the NUJ magazine. Mark Watts is author of The Fleet Street Sewer Rat, available in hardback for £10.00 from www.fleet-street-sewer-rat.com.
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