A private call?A private call?

Making a private phone call

Should the media ever be allowed to break the law in pursuit of a story? Their defence would be that it is in the public interest. But the public interest is less clearly defined than the law – and allowing this defence would lead to confusion.

It’s highlighted because of allegations that newspapers in Britain routinely hacked the voicemail of mobile phone users. They discovered the default codes for voicemail boxes which users had failed to change – and could listen to the messages left there. This in turn led to stories about celebrities, politicians and others.

Already there have been court cases, some have been jailed, and it’s likely more will follow. The Prime Minister’s chief press officer was forced to resign – he was formerly Editor of one of the papers involved, though he claims he didn’t know what his reporters were up to. This national newspaper has closed, the Murdoch family forced to give evidence in public, and damages paid. 

But despite paying compensation (again with more to come) and the police spending millions on investigations, the media say this practice can sometimes be justified. They allege that if the information gained is in the public interest and would not have emerged in any other way, their snooping is legitimate and should be legal. But it is illegal to hack communications.  Just as violent attacks are illegal, and we hope the media would never suggest that beating someone up might be justified sometimes, ‘in the public interest’.

If the Police want to listen to a private phone they need permission from the courts. And they’re already part of a democratically elected and empowered system, defending society in the public interest. Surely at the very least there should be a system whereby the media need official permission to carry out listening and surveillance activities if they wish to.  

That mechanism is absent. Of course it may be ignored or abused by the media if there was such a process…but at least then it would be clear that hacking isn’t in the public interest, but just a way of invading privacy to gain information which leads to sales and commercial gain.