Case Study: News of the World phone hacking scandal

The News of the World phone hacking scandal has been in the news for nearly five years.  The saga continues with people disagreeing over whether the scandal is an abuse of privacy or in the interest of the public.  Either way, it questions the boundaries of press and broadcasting freedom and the ethics imbedded in journalists.  Here we will explore both sides of the argument and what this might mean for press freedom in the future.  But first let’s look at a timeline of phone hacking at the News of the World and where it all began…

2006

  • In 2006 reporters used private investigators to illegally gain access to hundreds of mobile phone voicemail accounts held by a variety of people of interest to the newspaper.

2007

  • In 2007, the papers Royal Correspondent, Clive Goodman pleaded guilty to illegal; interception of personal communication and was jailed for 4 months, the papers then Editor, Andy Coulson, had resigned two weeks earlier.

2009

  • In 2009/2010, further revelations emerged on the extent of the phone hacking, and how it was common knowledge within the News of the World and its News International parent.

2010

  • By March 2010 the paper had spent over £2m settling court cases with victims of phone hacking.
  • In April 2010 it emerged that “the Officer in charge of the Scotland Yard inquiry, Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman subsequently left the Police to work for News International as a columnist.

2011

  • On January 17th 2011 The Guardian reported that Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator paid by the paper, testified that he had been asked by newspapers leadership to hack voicemail accounts on its behalf.
  • On 21st January 2011 Andy Coulson resigned from his post as David Cameron’s communications director.  He had joined Cameron’s communications team in 2007 after his resignation from The News of the World.  He said to the BBC: “Unfortunately, continued coverage of events connected to my old job at The News of The World has made it difficult for me to give the 110% needed in this role.  I stand by what I’ve said about those events, but when a Spokesman needs a Spokesman, it’s time to move on.”

Who has been affected?

It is also interesting to see who has been targeted by the phone hacking and how they have been affected.  A table of the names, job areas, titles, who they were warned by, when they were warned and the details has been collected by The Guardian.

An abuse of privacy?

Of the different arguments put forward about the phone hacking and whether the scandal is an abuse of privacy, Charlie Brooker from The Guardian said: “We shouldn’t have to feel paranoid about snoops listening in to everything we say.  You could bring down absolutely any public figure in the land simply by following them around with a concealed microphone long enough.  Everyone says stupid and objectionable things in private. That’s the point of a private conversation.”

The article in The Guardian also spoke about how the phone hacking saga didn’t get much coverage in the Murdoch press.  It also talks about paranoia being at all time high. MP’s can no longer talk to their own constituents without suspecting they may be undercover reporters. Celebrities can’t listen to their voicemails without wondering if they have been transcribed and passed to the news desk.  Football commentators can no longer yap like oafs in the downtime.

Brooker continued: “Bollocks to a world in which all conversation is shorn of its context.  Bollocks to a world in which everyone’s on permanent speakerphone, terrified of verbalising a thought crime.  Phone hacking. Hidden mics. This is beyond snooping in the public interest.  Rather than protecting us, reports are sitting there with headphones on making notes.” 

In the public interest?

On the other hand, Reporter Brendan O’Neil from The First Post pioneers for press freedom amidst the scandal.  He comments on The Guardian’s coverage, and what it could mean for press and broadcasting freedom.  He said: “Isn’t it the job of journalists to “hunt” the powers that be that is investigate them, embarrass them, laugh at them if necessary?  When Labour MP Chris Bryant said ‘Parliament should discuss what kind of investigative journalism we want in this country’, Brendaon fought back…He said “Excuse me, it is not up to the authorities to define what is good and bad investigative journalism – that is for journalists and publishers to decide their readers can cast judgement by either buying or not buying their papers. I would far rather have a ‘bad’ free press – even if it involves eavesdropping on celebrities – than have a ‘good’ controlled press.”

Governing Body

The Press Complaints Commission, who have issued a statement,  are setting up a working group to “draw together lessons learned” from the new police investigation and various legal cases relating to the News of the World phone hacking affair.  It will also take into account the News of the World internal inquiry into phone hacking.  It came about from The Guardian publishing new allegations that the practice was more widespread at The News of the World than the paper had admitted.  The Commission said: “The PCC has remained concerned about the issue of phone hacking, which raises serious questions about journalistic ethics and past conduct by journalists.”

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