'Tip of the Iceberg'

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What are the likely repercussions of the Clive Goodman conviction? Perhaps it will lead to a change of behaviour within the press? Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World, was very contrite after Goodman’s admission saying “Clive Goodman’s actions were entirely wrong and I have put in place measures to ensure that they will not be repeated by any member of my staff.” What measures? The News of the World already says it adheres to the industry’s code of practise which states clearly in clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge):
‘i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs. ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means’ (my italics)
Plus, only a few months ago the office of the information commissioner uncovered evidence showing that 305 journalists were repeatedly getting hold of information – via private detectives – using methods which certainly broke clause 10, and in many cases broke the law, in most cases clearly not in the public interest (see previous post). And, the fact that the stablemate of the News of the World, The Sun, ‘scooped’ the story of Gordon Brown’s baby son having cystic fibrosis yesterday (on Sun Online), indicates the behaviour won’t change any time soon.
An alternative, immediately touted by some, is ‘tougher privacy laws’ (Guardian) and jail sentences for journalists who break them. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has called for up to two years imprisonment. Simon Hughes said he has ‘long held the view that courts should be allowed to deprive those responsible for this sort of behaviour of their liberty’.
But a privacy law, on top of the Data Protection Act, on top of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), without any countervailing guarantees comparable to the US First Amendment, is very likely to constrain serious investigatory journalism that is genuinely in the public interest.
Surely a much more constructive alternative is to make self-regulation more effective. As yet the PCC has not investigated the case of the 305 journalists, despite being asked to do so by the office of the information commissioner. It has not taken any measures to help define ‘public interest’ so that it is unerringly clear to journalists when they are acting outside the editorial code of practise. It has not taken any initiative to assess how widespread the problem is or what can be done to prevent it – and thereby avoid further regulation. The PCC has not, in Sir Christopher Meyer’s words, been ‘absolutely clear on this issue of phone message tapping’, and if it doesn’t do something now then the calls for tougher laws will only get louder.

Written by Martin Moore

November 30th, 2006 at 8:35 am

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