Saturday, 9 July 2011

The tough questions over press regulation

We hope for catharsis in the News International crisis and some kind of moral cleansing of the nation. I’d be the first to agree that heads need to roll, but is it really the tactics of journalists at the News of the World that are the problem? Or could it actually be their outrageous choice of targets? Let me put it another way. We didn’t really care too much about the illegal hacking of phones when we thought the victims were celebrities and politicians. The explosion of rage has been prompted by our discovery that hired investigators were deleting the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl and listening to the conversations of people who’d lost relatives through war or terrorism.

Much investigative journalism depends on deception. This may be a difficult idea to accept, but it’s undoubtedly true. After all, when people are involved in wrongdoing, they rarely declare it publicly. Remember the recent Panorama exposé of the abuse going on in a home for people with learning disabilities? It was made possible by a journalist posing as a member of staff and secretly recording the behaviour of the nurses and so-called carers. Going undercover in that home was a brave and commendable thing to do. It wouldn’t surprise me if some undercover investigations involve deceptions which might technically break the law. But if they reveal a greater evil and expose people who need to be brought to justice, then I’m in favour.

Here’s an ethical dilemma for you. Someone tips off a journalist that a group of men are involved in trafficking underage women into the UK for prostitution. It’s possible to hack into the men’s phones and, in so doing, we’re able to find concrete evidence that they are guilty of a serious crime. Should we worry that the hacking of the phones is illegal? Surely the potential jailing of the sex traffickers is a clear-cut case of the ends justifying the means?

And if you don’t agree with me in the above case, my argument would be that you would have some threshold of crime at which you would reach the same conclusion. Murderers, rapists or perverts preying on kids. Genocidal soldiers in times of war. What if phone hacking could provide proof of serious crime? Are we still against it?

At this stage, you may be wondering if I’m an apologist for the disgraceful goings-on in the tabloid press. Far from it. I’m as shocked and angry as the next person. But my anger is not over phone hacking per se. It’s with the way it was seemingly used in a completely cavalier and ubiquitous fashion to target people who had committed no crime whatsoever. As the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has suggested, the tactic seemed to be the journalists’ default reaction to every single story. A culture developed in which the reporting became dependent on ‘the messages'.

I think there’s an interesting parallel with the recent history of Wikileaks. How exactly did Julian Assange and his mates get hold of their material? It’s been supplied by people who have passed it on illicitly and probably in breach of various laws and regulations. It’s true that some commentators and politicians – particularly in the United States – see the leaks of information as unacceptable. But does the general public think the same way? No. By and large, we are delighted that so-called ‘hacktivists’ have been able to expose the hypocrisy and double standards of the political classes, who say one thing publicly while proclaiming the opposite on secret cables.

If a hacker reveals something serious and significant, then we applaud him. If he simply makes mischief and publishes the financial details of the ordinary person in the street, we rightly condemn him. So it’s not the hacking itself that we judge to be morally wrong, but the end to which it’s put.

Should phone hacking be illegal? Instinctively, I believe that it should. As a general rule, everyone has the right to privacy. Does this mean that all phone hacking is equally bad at a moral or ethical level? Probably not. If we’re honest, we know we care far more about Millie Dowler and her parents, who suffered a terrible tragedy, than we do about multi-millionaire celebrities, who could easily afford enhanced security for their phone systems and email traffic.

For the moment, this is all one big blur. Eventually, however, after whatever public enquiry is concocted, we’re going to have to reach conclusions about further regulation or legislation. At that stage, we need to find a formula which stops the press intruding on the lives of the innocent, but doesn’t prevent it from exposing the hypocrisy of the powerful.