Privacy or press freedom? Journalism needs to juggle both


Last night, at City University London, a distinguished panel of journalists and lawyers debated the extent to which a reporter should go to in order to get a story. The discussion was in light of the continuing investigation into the News of the World’s supposedly routine hacking of phones. Here, The Student gives his tuppence worth.

Andy Coulson

Former NOTW editor Andy Coulson is at the centre of the continuing phone hacking investigation

Phone hacking is, in essence, the eternal discussion of where privacy ends and public interest begins. Those who believe that phone hacking is immoral and has no place in journalism generally believe that privacy should be preserved. Others who feel hacking is legitimate normally say people in the public eye should be accountable for their actions because of the influence they hold.

I come down somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe that reporters should not have to obey the law 100% of the time and feel there are occasions when finding sources for a stories by illegal means is permissible. History has certainly shown that the best journalism is often a product of unethical means. Watergate and the recent expenses scandal, which the Telegraph broke on the back of acquiring a stolen disk, demonstrate that acting unethically has it’s rewards. From a journalist’s point of view,  big stories, the ones that shake society to the core, do not magically appear. And I’d like to think that a large proportion of the public would also want newspapers to use whatever means necessary to get a story which has far reaching implications.

In addition to that, looking at phone hacking in the bigger picture, making newspapers investigate stories more ‘ethically’ would alter the fundamental essence of the press. The press, almost by definition, needs to behave radically. And as Sir Ken Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions warned, the consequences of restricting the freedom of the press are more dire than if tabloids continue to run amok. If we put a harness on the press, we are effectively putting a harness on democracy and that is dangerous.

However, despite all that, I do believe newspapers continually  misinterpret and misrepresent this notion of public interest. They break stories about John Terry and Katie Price under the guise of public interest and insist they did it because we, the public, needed to know. In short, they are using the very malleable term of ”public interest” as an excuse for a free reign to print what they like and boost their sales figures. That’s not on. They shouldn’t be able to speak on our behalf and to define public interest when it, by definition, is determined by the public.

Press Complaints Commission

Alas, I have no answer, just like the esteemed panel of Nick Davies, Roy Greenslade and Andrew Caldecott QC had no answer last night. But what I do know is that the current blanket rules making phone hacking for any story wrong does not achieve anything. The guidelines laid down by the Press Complaints Commission should be flexible enough to allow phone hacking for certain cases, involving politicians, but not celebrities.

Until that happens, the privacy versus press freedom debate will continue to rumble on.

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About benwhitelaw
Ben is Communities Editor at The Times

17 Responses to Privacy or press freedom? Journalism needs to juggle both

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Privacy or press freedom? Journalism needs to juggle both « Wannabe Hacks -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: “Privacy or press freedom? Journalism needs to juggle both” « Shane Croucher

  3. Peter Demain says:

    You’re begun the argument off on a very current note, however it wasn’t one to engage the rest of your post on. For one thing it occurred, as is currently alleged, in the tabloid press. The NOTW is apparently where the buck stopped. Given the stuff that appears in that sort of paper, it’s very tenuous to term it ‘journalism’; look at all the incumbent X-Factor coverage, the filler, lies, the non-news celeb obsessions. That’s gossipy entertainment; to focus on ‘news’papers doing that represents only part of the argument.

    Privacy legislation is bunk. Current laws deal with it badly enough. If new legislation were to emerge you’d have even more rich, powerful people abusing it, with m’learned friends getting every penny they could out for themselves and plaintiff. However as with libel at present, the objective would not be money – it would be concealing or suppressing information often of wrongdoing.

    Britain’s libel laws are as bad as it is, and were it not for precedents by the ‘quality’ press and Private Eye it’d still be a lottery where you’d not know what you’d be penalized for. You ought to have focused on that press, as they are usually the ones who do what I think you mean by ‘big’ stories and occasional investigations. Further laws – whether dressed up as ‘clarification’ or morally justified in the digital age or what have you – are extremely dangerous.

    On the continent, where libel is relatively genial, the French brought in a very stark privacy law. The press started investigating a minister who had avoided tax his entire life. However the courts said; ‘they’re his financial affairs, and none of your business’. What about all those figures who have sex with others, but the relationship is tied into nepotism or wrongdoing?

    Where exactly does privacy end?

    Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

  4. Pingback: Privacy or press freedom? Journalism needs to juggle both … | Unblocked News

  5. The Student says:

    That’s exactly the debate Peter, where does privacy end? And who is entitled to it?

    Nick Davies jokingly spoke last night about having a hypothetical council of three wise people whose job it would be to decide when it breaking the current PCC laws about hacking is allowed.

    Obviously it’s an impractical and far fetched solution that would never work in reality. BUT that’s in effect what we kind of need, someone to judge on a case by case basis, what ‘public interest’ is and whether privacy trumps it on this occasion.

    • Peter Demain says:

      Yes, those people should be a publication’s editorial department. If they feel that the story is ‘right’, they should run it – and if they face consequences in the courts afterwards, win or lose, that’s a cost of our current system. Any new system whether it be Mosley’s with the judge abjudicating will end up just as flawed as humans are subjective.

      Can you imagine some Judge or legal executive, as conservative, old and protective of their well-paid stations as they tend to be, permitting all which should be permitted? Since every scenario is different there’s ambiguity, and so ‘risky’ stories, and even stories that aren’t risky but offend those judging’s sensibilities get binned.

      Goodman was, by some unnamed ‘investigator’ cited by the Eye (No. 1271) said to be ‘old school’. Old school investigative lawbreaking did not surround things like celeb gossip, as most of the tabloid hacks sought to gather. There is nothing publicly good or world-changing about a celeb tale; it’s tattle, trash and anyone who breaks laws to get that isn’t old school: they’re morons.

      Your article was badly put together in places. The start of the second paragraph had me re-read it about three times navigating your double negative witterings. These language deficiencies plus the overuse of bold made it a cumbersome read. If this site is aimed at journos, who skim incessently, I suggest reading Orwell and others who mastered the use of layman’s terms plain prose writing.

      Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

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  7. Pingback: A defence of phone hacking, by ex-NotW journalist | Martin Moore

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  9. Rajvir Rai says:

    It was a really interesting evening and I think the points you make are all valid. Like you I agree that reporters should not always have to follow the law and I thought this was the big talking point of yesterday’s debate.

    I’ve done a little report on last night’s events and thought you maybe interested in it. http://tinyurl.com/36983jy

  10. CurrentHack says:

    I thought it was a rather good article and a nicely balanced take on a difficult subject. Peter’s pointless (and for my money, incorrect) editorial nitpicking adds nothing to the debate and really should be moderated. Why criticise the author’s writing style? I found that unnecessarily nasty, Peter.

    • Peter Demain says:

      Why is what I said ‘pointless’? Have you worked in a publication which emboldens so much text? I found a couple of parts hard to digest and gave an example; the double negative that stalled my getting through the post. It wasn’t a personal attack.

      It’s ironic that you single those remarks out as ‘adding nothing to the debate’ to the neglect of the rest of the waffle which made up the vast majority of my comments. That in itself isn’t exactly nice is it?

      Since most of your comment only criticizes my criticism, I think you’re the one guilty of failing to add a meaningful contribution to what is indeed a difficult, and probably neverending, issue in journalism.

      Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

  11. Ben Edwards says:

    I thought the debate last night was good – but nothing we haven’t already heard before. I agree with Greenslade that it is likely that Coulson might not have known about the phone hacking, or chose not to know (ie. plausible denial).. as for public interest – there is a big difference between what the public are interested in (Rooney bumming whores etc) and what is genuinely in the public interest (politicians’ expenses).. people seem to think it is pretty difficult to define the two, but it seems quite clear to me, gossip about the sex lives of celebs is not in the public interest regardless of how many papers it shifts, whereas matters concerning the misdemeanors of those elected (or unelected) who hold positions of responsibility in society are fair game.. Wayne Rooney (for example) does not hold a position of responsibility in society (and anybody who looks up to footballers as ‘role models’ probably should have paid more attention at school). That said, I can see why Rooney is considered by some as fair game – he has cashed in on his celebrity and his family life… but I still don’t think it is any of our business what Wayne gets up to in private..
    And I agree with CurrentHack, Pete’s criticisms are nasty and unnecessary. Jealousy? Keep up the sterling work Benji.

    • Peter Demain says:

      Ben Edwards said: And I agree with CurrentHack, Pete’s criticisms are nasty and unnecessary. Jealousy?

      Good journalists act on evidence rather than make assertions off the bat: If anything is ‘nasty’, insulting and unnecessary it’s your baseless introduction of jealousy to the equation.

      Ever consider the quiant notion that the comments were written in respect for points raised rather than envy? Fact you singled out some clerical criticism to the neglect of everything else speaks volumes. If anyone is ‘nitpicking’ it’s yourself and RibesHack.

      For the sake of keeping the discussion on track; a comment I made earlier today in an article about Nick Davies’ apology to the NOTW:

      Where exactly is the need to apologize?

      Imagine if Thatcher had apologized to the mining unions for breaking them back in the 80s; it sent a clear message to all the other strike-prone workers and their unions that that Prime Minister’s success would happen by hook or by crook. By going after the big fish, others scattered and were in disarray – I’m not saying that’s good or bad; but it was the intent behind her government’s efforts.

      If the hacking did occur, then every paper perpetrating it is as bad as all of the others. It’s rather like being bullied by a group of thugs at school, but when revealing this to a teacher placing emphasis on only one of them. Then, once that particular bully is feeling the heat you say sorry to him. If anything he and his friends should be the one holding up their hands to apologize to all concerned. In this case it would be the press for yet another hit to reputation, and those finding their voicemails listened in on.

      Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

  12. Pingback: Please Define for Me,”Freedom of the Press” what do you have to do to be considered, “The Press” | Free Our Press

  13. thegriff says:

    and so, it’s just a small small ideea 😀

  14. Initialgamer says:

    I agree with this guy on this one
    It was a really interesting evening and I think the points you make are all valid. Like you I agree that reporters should not always have to follow the law and I thought this was the big talking point of yesterday’s debate.

    I’ve done a little report on last night’s events and thought you maybe interested in it. http://tinyurl.com/36983jy

    Gaming and Hacking

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