I’m getting quite used to being asked, as I have a number of times over the last couple of weeks ‘so did you do any phone hacking then?’
Let me just clarify, I did not work for the News of the World (aka The Screws) and also – I have never hacked a mobile phone.
I was however freelancing for national newspapers and broadcasters during the period currently in question, and I can confirm that I certainly understood such tactics to be widely used by national media, certainly Tabloid, journalists.
The list of papers I worked for as a freelance is kind of a rogues gallery, and if you were to add in the papers who I did jobs for/provided material to as a press agency reporter, I think the only national exception is the Morning Star.
I went in to journalism hoping to write for the likes of the Guardian, perhaps a magazine like New Internationalist, or better yet, the BBC, who I almost got a job with as part of their BBC Talent initiative way back when.
But I soon realised when I went freelance, the people with the money to pay me were the red-tops. I gained a small time reputation as somebody who was good at finding out information, (legally) and so for a while I got plenty of work from National dailies and Sunday papers, not just the Tabloids, I also worked for the Telegraph and the Times occasionally. But I eventually left the industry feeling somewhat jaded, and although I still call myself a journalist, I no longer have a press card – although I may one day rejoin the NUJ and tread a different journalistic path.
The kind of journalism I do these days, is to write the occasional feature article, and I do mean occasional. I’m generally too involved with doing things to spend enough time writing about them.
Anyway, back to the point – as far as I was concerned, underhand tactics were/are rife, be they covert recording of conversations (been there, done that) or ‘pretext’ interviews – through to the obtaining of personal and private information via illegal or illicit means. One example of that would be the way papers pay for information from credit reference agencies – and they have all the information on all of us. I can’t say for sure that it still happens, but it certainly did, and the people I knew of who used it werent working for News International.
What the outsider can never understand is the sheer pressure exerted by a London news desk on an individual reporter/investigator to get results. Papers are incredibly competitive, and incredibly fearful of being found wanting – if another paper scoops them on a big story, there will be hell to pay. So reporters working a story cannot afford to miss a tiny detail which may turn into tomorrow’s splash.
That’s why money changes hands, between journalists and anybody who can give them decent, reliable info – policemen, civil servants, whoever. It’s basically paying for a tip off – and a tip off might just come from a person who overheard a snatch of conversation, just as it might come from an official source. Journalists and detectives actually work in very similar ways. It might seem grubby – indeed it might be grubby, but the argument would be that it is the way you get the stories, and the stories are what matter.
Its a nonsense to imagine that the whole of the press can be investigated and ‘cleaned up’ – the problems/issues go too deep. For many years the unspoken rule was ‘don’t cause trouble about other hacks’ – but that has fallen down around our ears, with Johann Hari on one side, and the NOTW on the other. For what its worth, I dont think the NOTW were the worst offenders, neither does the information commisioner who reported these offences in 2006 :
Trinity Mirror: 1663 incidents by 139 journalists
Mail Group: 1248 incidents by 95 journalists
News International: 182 incidents by 19 journalists
(source Archbishop Cranmer)
Screws journalists were certainly sneaky, underhand and often liars, they were also very talented, and they knew how to write copy which would sell newspapers. But all newspapers of my aquaintance are staffed with convincing liars, inventive snoopers and other people who are so world hardened that they wouldnt necessarily think it too wrong to listen to somebody’s voicemail to get a good new lead. Apparently the story about Sven Goran Erriksson and Ulrika Jonnson was got via phone hacking… who knew?
Thing is though, that it’s not a big step from peaking in a window to figuring out a webmail password – its not a big step from lying about the reason you’re interviewing somebody to lying about where you heard some news. Journalists are allowed by law to protect their sources, which is a good thing, but it allows for the opportunity to pull a fast one.
I havent really played a part in the Murdoch downfall – indeed I think there’s a long way to go before downfall can be claimed, my real belief is that the media in the UK and beyond is full of this kind of activity, and I say that from experience.
If there is any blame game, it should again be shared by those of us happy to read slacious details, eager to know the inside story, or pulled in by the shocking headline. I suspect that the broadsheet newspapers, if they had more money to throw around, would have adopted such tactics too – looking at the disappointing activities of the likes of Hari (great writer by the way – just a shame he allegedly is a liar), perhaps they arent far off anyway.
I guess the difference does come through editors and proprieters, and so independence gives one more room, and a moral editor is a boon to us all. But everyone is answerable to the public in this media age, and if you arent getting the big stories, you wont sell newspapers, and if you dont sell newspapers, you won’t keep your job.