Jail for journalists

8 February 2007 – The News of the World’s Royal Correspondent gets four months in jail and his editor falls on his sword. Few would want the Press Complaints Commission to have such sanctions at its disposal, but the outcome of Clive Goodman’s criminal trial for hacking into personal phone calls will have a more lasting effect than the half-hearted slap on the wrist issued by the PCC when it bucks up its courage and occasionally finds a newspaper at fault.

Announcing the court’s verdict, in a single column on page 32 of Sunday’s edition, the NoW failed to inform its readers that Goodman’s associate, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who got 6 months, was pocketing four times the national average wage for supplying information to the News of the World alone.

And we know they are not alone. Last year, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas claimed to have a list of 305 journalists who have obtained information using illegal methods. Perhaps it is time he published his evidence. Save to say not all of them will have been eavesdropping on royal phone calls.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of ordinary people have had personal details splattered over intrusive and often inaccurate stories in the 15 years since the PCC arrived on the scene to clean up journalism. Many lost relationships, jobs and even homes after prurient stories based on illicitly obtained information from employers, phone companies, banks or public authorities. Yet the PCC is always willing to give the benefit of the doubt to newspapers when Joe and Mary Public challenge the methods used to beat the competition with manufactured sensation after sensation.

On the very morning in 1996 that the PCC and a senior editor were to be grilled by the National Heritage Select Committee about payments to witnesses, the industry announced stricter rules. Too bad there is not a Standing Committee on the Media which could now invite editors and proprietors to explain how commercial priorities put “low conduct, reprehensible in the extreme,” as Mr Justice Gross called it, ahead of respect for the law. Like the man said: “This case was not about press freedom; it was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy.”

The pity of it is that such behaviour undermines the role and respect that journalists should have among the public. Politicians are moving to limit disclosure under the hard-won FoI Act, and that is against the public interest, but how much energy and investment is the industry putting into using the Act to expose injustice, misuse of public funds and incompetence?

To its credit the NoW demonstrated the value of the Act with its ‘322 Sex Fiends on the Loose’ story, on Sunday, but if it can afford to pay a part-timer over £100,000 to bug celebrity phones, how will it argue against higher charges for Freedom of Information requests?

Perhaps there is one happy outcome we might expect from the whole farrago – an end to Royal honours for ‘services to journalism’. Far better for the accolade to come from readers and colleagues because editors and journalists have demonstrated a willingness to put the public good before their own bank balances.

(Bulletin No 130)

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