Newspapers: guilty plea masks dark arts

IT is a pity we shan’t have a full-blown court hearing about the News of the World bugging scandal. It might have shone a torch on some of the murkier dealings of the ‘fourth estate’.

Gratifying through it may be to have NoW editor, Andy Coulson, apologise for the misplaced zeal of his Royal editor, and for that person to hold his hand up to wrong-doing, the issues at stake here go far beyond the upset caused to those ‘celebrities’ whose mobile phones were being bugged.

The decision to plead guilty may work in favour of lighter sentences for the Royal editor and his co-defendant, but suspicions will remain that their decision masks an attempt to avoid further revelations about dubious journalistic practices.

Coulson insists that he has “put in place measures” to ensure there won’t be a repetition of these practices by his staff.

His words beg many questions.

Why weren’t they in place already, given that Clause 3 and Clause 10 (i) of the Editors’ Code policed by the Press Complaints Commission, to which he has signed up, is unequivocal on the matter?

What about the behaviour of non-staff members?

Do his ‘measures’ cover freelances, or outside agencies like private investigators, who often supply the meat in the sandwich?

And why wasn’t he taking more of an interest in his staff’s methods given the numerous occasions in recent years when the NoW has courted controversy with what some might term ‘entrapment’ techniques?

It has long been known that some newspapers employ all manner of dubious methods to obtain confidential or merely salacious information.

Indeed, the [English] Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has said that he knows of at least 305 journalists who have violated section 55 of the Data Protection Act in pursuit of personal information without proper consents.

[Media ethics charity,] MediaWise has had to deal with many ordinary complainants over the years who don’t have the benefit of expensive lawyers.

They express fear, anger and confusion when details of the phone calls, phone bills, bank accounts and even health records have found their way into the public domain – with not a journalist in sight until the fateful call (if it comes) asking them to comment on the revelations that are about to be published.

The Press Complaints Commission has rarely commented on the methods used to obtain such information, and no prosecutions have followed.

The public would be better served if journalists used their ingenuity to shine a light on more important matters than the personal foibles of the rich and famous.

Mike Jempson is director, MediaWise