It was always a carefully crafted illusion that phone-hacking was limited to the other worldly politicians and celebrities. Until Dowler newspapers could scoff at the Guardian’s stubborn persistence in reporting each turn of the scandal; suddenly the scoffing has turned to choking. We can only imagine the sordid circumstances whereby the journalists and investigators involved could think it anything other than abhorrent to listen to the messages of an abducted (and subsequently murdered) young girl; “sick” was the word used in the Commons today.
What we have to remind ourselves is where this sickness comes from. The infection is exhibited in the newspaper coverage of phone hacking to date. The vast proportion of newspaper readers were not invited to care whether Andy Gray’s private messages were laid bare in the news rooms in Wapping. We were given little information on the malodorous omissions of the initial Met Police investigation or the Met’s treatment of victims such as John Prescott. Somehow these things did not really matter to our newspaper editors. Worse still, they complained at the police time being wasted in this investigation.
Whilst this was the pervading opinion, those at News International could tell themselves what they had done was not so bad. It was newsgathering, naughty newsgathering but in journo circles; if you got away with it, then good for you.
But privacy needs to matter. As soon as it is acceptable to listen to Sienna Miller’s phone messages, where do you draw the line? Certainly within the murky line was hacking those around the “targets”; Joan Hammell from John Prescott’s office had her messages extensively hacked (whether of relevance or not) for her boss’s information. Others have similar stories; Marie-Ellen Field’s claim is that she was fired from her job and shunned when blamed for being the source of leaks to the media about her client Elle Macpherson (who was later found to have been hacked). Neither Joan Hammell nor Marie-Ellen Field are high-profile individuals and so this is hardly attention that they could be described as bringing upon themselves. Leslie Ash and Lee Chapman have described how their phones were hacked under appalling circumstances. The slithering down the slippery slope gathers pace. One can begin to imagine how this increasingly mundane technique simply becomes part of the process. The News of the World may concentrate on the private lives of the “rich and famous”, but the unknown and in particular the victims of crime can also achieve prominence; why would we expect their widely accepted techniques to change according to the type of story or status of the target?
The fact is that there is no respect for private lives in our newspaper industry, no matter what the European Convention on Human Rights may say. At best the newspapers, want to avoid being sued when they get caught-out, at worst they simply don’t care. The public took up the invitation to laugh and mock the private life of a footballer earlier this year and made it a national sport. Politicians, sports administrators, singers, actors have all suffered a similar fate. The variety of techniques used to secure these exposés is rarely considered worthy of consideration. Until this tabloid lust for privacy is itself fully exposed, condemned and outlawed – it will continue unabated. Forget the slick missives from Rebecca Brooks about her intention to investigate the circumstances of the Dowler hacking; arrests and compensation payments have been shown to have little impact on her newspapers’ behaviour. What we need is privacy and Brooks, Dacre et al simply don’t believe in it. Each newspaper invites their millions of readers to share in a disdain for private life. Even in the face of the Dowler revelation you won’t find calls for a public inquiry http://hackinginquiry.org/ or a change in the regulation of journalism in the Times or Telegraph, let alone the Mail, Sun or Mirror.
It is time for change. We need boundaries. We need a clear line – starting straight through News of the World and all its apologists.