At a City University event last night a panel of six speakers, chaired by Andrew Caldecott QC, discussed the question “”How far should a reporter go? The lessons of the News of the World phone-hacking story“.  Guardian journalist Nick Davies suggested that the “News of the World” was had just been unlucky in being found out on telephone hacking.  He argued that the problem was a devastating combination of advanced technology – which made illegal access to informaton easier – and increasing commercial pressure on newspapers had produced the problem.   The boundaries of “public interest” were ill-defined and, as a result, he had reluctantly come to the view that a tough law of privacy was required.Former “News of the World” journalist Paul McMullan took a diametrically opposed view.  He suggested that there were no limits on journalism save for those imposed by the criminal jury.  He confessed to having hacked the telephones and accessed the medical records of cocaine smugglers – something he thought was justified in the public itnerest.  Privacy was something to be fought against – it was the area where people did bad things.  Privacy protection gave power to the journalists who kept dossiers on people in power.  He mentioned that the police had contacted him three times to interview him under caution about phone hacking.

The next panellist was lawyer Mark Lewis who argued that there was no proper reason to listen into private conversations and that the PCC was a waste of time.  In relation to the Metropolitan police investigation he accepted that there was probably no new evidence – but that there was a lot of old evidence which had not been looked at.  The connections between the police and the “News of the World” were many and wide ranging.

Former tabloid editor and Guardian blogger Roy Greenslade played devil’s advocate (as mentioned on his blog).  He put the “News of the World” case – pointing out it was the best selling Sunday newspapers, publishing stories which its readers like to read.  The paper makes sure that celebrities stay honest.  He argued that Mr Coulson’s style of editing meant that he would not know the source of every story.    He also argued out that newspapers had always employed the dark arts and had to do so because we lived in a largely secret society.  Law breaking was reasonable if the story was big enough.

Max Mosley castigated the arrogance of the press in taking upon itself the decision as to when and whether it could break the law.  He attacked the “role model”  justification for invading the privacy of public figures. He suggested that a simple definition of public interest was information that the public needed to know to make the decisions that they need to make (there is an opinion piece by Max Mosley on privacy issues on Jon Slattery’s blog).

Former DPP Lord Ken Macdonald said that he had no detailed knowledge of the phone hacking investigations – his involvement had been confined to a couple of briefings in 2006.  The issue might well be that of the extent to which information had not been given to the CPS at the time.  On the more general issue he accepted that people were entitled to privacy and that journalists generally had to obey the law.  However, there were occasions on which they had to break the rules – as far they need to, within reason.  He expressed the concern that privacy law leads journalists into an attitude of deference to those in power.

The panel contributions were followed by a lively and interesting debate with some hard hitting questions from the floor.  Nick Davies floated his idea of “three wise men” to express a view as to whether a journalistic investigation was in the public interest – with the courts being permitted to take into account a failure to follow such advice.

There is a report of the debate on Jon Slattery’s blog, with the title “Nick Davies apologises to the News of the World: ‘It wasn’t just them it was the whole of Fleet Street’