Blame not the mobile, ’twas ever thus

7 February 2012 – The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism At The Crossroads, edited by Richard Keeble and John Mair, is a collection of essays from academics, journalists and media activists on the hacking controversy and the current state of journalism in Britain. It was published by Arima in February 2012 and includes a chapter written by MediaWise on press misbehaviour over several decades.

An abridged version of this chapter – ‘Blame not the mobile, ’twas ever thus’ – follows:

Revelations to the Leveson Inquiry into press culture, practice and ethics will have come as no surprise to anyone who has taken an interest in press standards since World War Two. There have been periodic outbreaks of concern about press intrusion and sensationalism and demands for statutory controls, none of which have had much impact in terms of curtailing press excesses. Public revulsion over the hacking of a murder victim’s phone may have brought things to a head, and while there remain many untold stories about the harm done by intrusive, inaccurate or sensational press coverage, much of what is being said to the inquiry has been said before, and to little avail.

In his memoirs, Fleet Street investigative reporter Gerry Brown (1995), who worked for News International and Mirror Group titles, claimed to have invented what he called ‘tabloid-techno’ using the latest technology to obtain sound and images. He explained that a scanner costing a few hundred pounds could home in on selected mobile phones, and with a ‘Celltracker’ – a mobile phone linked to a laptop – it was possible to lock on to signals and even make calls from the numbers under surveillance.

He cited the audio tapes of Princess Diana complaining to her lover James Gilbert about a previous lover James Hewitt, allegedly scanned by a retired bank manager, and by another Oxfordshire resident, and supplied to the Sun in 1990. At the time, David Calcutt QC was conducting an investigation into press invasions of privacy (Calcutt 1990), and the ‘Squidgygate’ tapes were not published for another two years (Sun, 23 August 1992). Shortly afterwards, an erotic conversation between Prince Charles and his then-lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, was similarly intercepted. First published by New Idea, one of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian magazines, his UK titles quickly followed suit, days after the now Sir David Calcutt had proposed statutory controls in a government sponsored review (Calcutt 1993) of the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

Although some doubts arose about whether the tapes were direct recordings or if the scanners had picked up deliberately rebroadcast recordings, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC 27 January 1993) was adamant: ‘Bugging of private telephone calls is manifestly an invasion of privacy, no matter who does it. As such, it is contrary to the industry’s code and the commission deplore the publication of the so-called Camillagate tapes. We recognise, however, that unethically and illegally obtained material may still be published abroad and republished in Britain.’ Rejecting the Calcutt proposals, the PCC nonetheless admitted: ‘…exceptional circumstances may arise which would justify the publication. For these reasons we think it is essential that there should be legislation defining the boundaries of the law.’

The incident highlighted the apparent contempt with which Murdoch’s newspapers in particular held any attempt by the British establishment to curtail the activities of the press. Brown also hinted at more sinister practices. He claimed that Robert Maxwell bugged his own staff and kept under lock and key the names and pictures of two senior Conservative MPs who made use of the services of a Wigmore Street massage parlour but was happy to publish stories about the visits of showbiz celebrities and Major Tom Ferguson, father of the Duchess of York.

The PCC has always seemed strangely reluctant to investigate the methods used to obtain stories, perhaps relying too heavily upon assurances from editors that their staff would never misbehave in such a way. Often MediaWise has had calls from people besieged in their homes by ‘media scrums’. They are always advised to try to keep their cool, since displays of fear – driving away at speed – or anger – threatening or actually striking out at photographers or reporters – provide the new angle the pack are waiting to seize upon. One teacher, who had in earlier days worked for an escort agency, described how a reporter had marched around her house calling out: ‘Come on out, we know you’re in there. We know you were a whore.’ This was, of course, denied by the newspaper. A single parent who had left the police force after winning compensation three years earlier for what the Daily Mail had described as ‘a sustained campaign of harassment [by police colleagues] which undermined not only her professional confidence but also her health’, was horrified to discover that two people had been peering into her house and asking questions of her neighbours. She had moved home for her own protection. The following week the Daily Mail identified its location and described her home as ‘tastefully decorated with old-style farm furniture and expensive ornaments’.

Although the Mail had earlier opined: ‘She had every justification for taking her case to an industrial tribunal…which she had deservedly won’, like other newspapers it had always quoted a sum concocted by journalists after the hearing. Constrained by the terms of her settlement from revealing details of the award, the woman felt helpless to challenge the frequent repetition of this exaggerated figure, which was now being used by the Mail along with some of the sexist jibes she had endured, as part of its campaign against ‘the compensation culture’. The PCC wanted evidence that the incident had affected her health, and the Mail claimed ‘public interest’ in justification of its repeated references to her.

Other complainants had also been asked to reveal medical or even police records to the PCC with no guarantee that they would not be seen by the newspapers which had made inaccurate or intrusive claims. Some even suggested that the PCC was being used as a backdoor means of confirming what was only suspected, or of legitimising information which had been illicitly obtained.

Another woman called MediaWise from her bedroom where she had taken refuge after being told by a neighbour that two men were skulking around her isolated house, and peering through her downstairs windows. She had earlier refused to talk to a reporter and photographer from the Daily Mail. MediaWise called the news desk to insist that the men be called off. Despite denials of their presence, they withdrew shortly afterwards. This woman, who had been trying to expose sharp practices by a mortgage company, had become terrified when she realised that someone was accessing her telephone records illicitly. This was before mobile phones had become ubiquitous. She had been hounded by a man claiming to be a journalist but who she suspected of being a private investigator. Years later the revelations of the Information Commissioner (Thomas, 2006) confirmed what so many MediaWise clients had always suspected, that newspapers routinely hired investigators to collect data which staff could not readily access.

Their other sources are the news agencies and freelances who provide an ever more essential information gathering service as the number of staff journalists has reduced over the years. Their earning capacity depends upon adding value to stories which may arise from court cases or local news outlets, and to provide local background for national stories. This is one of the significant structural issues, along with ‘citizen journalism’, blogging and Twitter which will continue to have an impact upon newsgathering techniques and media standards.

Two European Commission funded projects are currently investigating what all this might mean in terms of both policy and practice (see and The new PCC Chair, Lord Hunt, already believes he has got the measure of the task in his reform proposals to persuade bloggers to register and adopt a standards ‘kitemark’. However, it remains one of the greatest challenges both to regulators and to the Leveson Inquiry.

The journalism of the future will not be in the hands of a select band of hacks who consider themselves the gatekeepers of public taste and morals, free to operate as they please. It will be subject to constant scrutiny and open to a far wider range of participants – and best of all it should become fertile ground for high quality investigative reporting which recognises people rights, considers consequences, and expects public servants and power elites to operate as ethically as the media professionals will now be expected to behave.

Recent Related Posts