Tuesday, July 12, 2011...1:06 pm

#NOTW scandal: Don’t confuse the ethics of tabloid journalism with its legality

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The News of the World phone hacking scandal won’t go away, so let’s add some verbiage to it.
Specifically – what’s the difference between scum-sucking, immoral, intrusive, vile tabloid (or other) journalism and illegal practices?
Fleet Street Blues posted an excellent dissection of the nuances of journalistic morality last week (I wish I’d written it). The crux of the matter is this:

There’s a clear distinction between what the general public is outraged at (harassing people who deserve our sympathy) and the crime (hacking into voicemails)

So – generally we, the people, are disgusted by the idea of a journalist knocking on the door of a murder victim’s family, but would probably cheer a hack hacking into Rupert Murdoch’s voicemail.
But the first is legal while the second, strictly speaking, is not. And the first, really, is part of the fabric of journalism, and has been for as long as we’ve had such a thing.
The confusion over this seems to be spilling out into the debate, even in the media. Here’s a critical look at tabloid journalism practices from the Shropshire Star, which got some play on Twitter last week.
In My encounter with the News of the World, Shropshire PR consultant Jools Payne takes issue with the idea that News of the World journalists have shaken off phone hacking and are now “decent, hard-working people”.
It’s a sobering and uncomfortable story. The girlfriend of her 17-year-old son was murdered – and Payne’s son Max was named on the girl’s Facebook page. As a result, the massed ranks of the tabloid press descended on her to try to photograph and interview Max. Cue days of pestering and wheedling, plus numerous attempts to “friend” Max on Facebook.
It was obviously unpleasant. But it wasn’t at any point, as far as the story tells it, illegal.
At one point Payne asks pointedly, “How had the press got my mobile number?”. But she’s a PR consultant – unless it was a private mobile phone, different from her work mobile, the number was probably accessible – legally – from many different sources.
The only real allusion to illegal behaviour is Payne’s comment:  “I can’t help but wonder whether our phones were also hacked into at that time.”
But she offers no evidence at all for this. And mobile network operators started tightening up on voicemail hacking from about 2006, so it’s not very likely her phone would have been hacked 15 months ago.
Instead, Payne’s real problem is with journalism itself:

“The media’s insatiable quest for answers… hacks skulking in bushes in the school grounds and brazenly marching straight into his office demanding comments and answers with impunity.”

It’s perfectly understandable – this end of journalism is distasteful to many people – and pretty much anyone on the receiving end of it.
But it’s not illegal. And one can argue it’s not immoral – it’s simply the price we are obliged pay for a free media.
It’s also interesting to see the way that this article compares what happened in Shropshire to the current scandal. It talks about: “Reprehensible behaviour such as hacking into abducted teenager Milly Dowling’s mobile phone”
But that wasn’t “reprehensible behaviour”. It was a crime. The key debate we should be having is about legality in journalism. Straying from that into the ethics of journalism – or even the tastefulness of journalism – risks missing the point entirely. And putting the free media at risk.

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