Should journalists break the law? Yes if need be!

July 10, 2009

-nicholas-jonesNicholas Jones is the author of Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs (Politico’s, 2006). He is a member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. The opinions expressed are his own.-

When searching for news and checking facts reporters often have to bend the rules and possibly break the law. But through its purchase of confidential mobile phone messages the “News of the World” has blackened the reputation of British journalism.

In a true democracy journalists have to be free to investigate without the constant fear of falling foul of the state or of being hounded by the police and the courts. Indeed principled journalists are ready to go to jail rather than reveal their sources.

But there is a huge difference between a justified breach of personal privacy in support of investigative journalism and a blatant fishing trip for private and confidential information.

From what is already known about the hacking into mobile phone messages of Prince William and others – for which a “News of the World” editor was sent to jail — it is clear that this was a calculated, commercially driven operation that was not only in breach of the law but an affront to established journalistic standards.

So great is the competition for exclusive stories that increasingly British newspapers and magazines have had fewer and fewer scruples when it comes to purchasing confidential information, whether it was leaked, stolen or gained through unauthorised access.

For example, every week the “Sun” and the “News of the World” offer their readers cash in return for exclusive stories and pictures. When there is money on offer, the temptation can be too great.

There are numerous cases where some of those who were responsible for safeguarding confidential information and data have abused their position. Police officers, tax inspectors, bank staff and a host of other workers who gave access to personal and private data have been accused of passing on information to journalists.

Advances in technology have facilitated this trade and the opportunities multiply: incriminating footage on CCTV tapes find a ready market and so do pictures of notorious prisoners taken on mobile phones.

British newspapers are in the dock because the purchase of information is now so commonplace. But whatever the reservations of some journalists, the Daily Telegraph has demonstrated – with its disclosures about the abuse of MPs’ expenses – that even when confidential information has been purloined and then sold, there is a public interest defence.

What added justification to the purchase by the “Daily Telegraph” of the misappropriated disc from the House of Commons fees office was that MPs had changed the law on Freedom of Information in order to prevent the data from being published.

No such extenuating circumstances apply to the “News of the World”: by encouraging and condoning hacking into mobile phone messages and then by acquiescing at the sale of that information to the highest bidder, the “News of the World” shamed the good name of investigative journalism.

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