Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Using illegal phone hacks to find a story ...

Nick Davies, a freelance reporter and author of Flat Earth News, is not always the most popular of journalists amongst his peers. His book claims to take "the lid off newspapers and broadcasters, exposing the mechanics of falsehood, distortion and propaganda; naming names and telling the stories behind stories."

His latest article will presumably see him removed from even more journalists' Christmas card lists! Writing on the today, Davies says that Murdoch-owned papers have paid out £1-million to gag what he calls 'phone-hacking victims'. He says the money was paid to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal evidence of journalists' repeated involvement in the use of criminal methods to get stories.
"The payments secured secrecy over out-of-court settlements in three cases that threatened to expose evidence of Murdoch journalists using private investigators who illegally hacked into the mobile phone messages of numerous public figures and to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills. Cabinet ministers, MPs, actors and sports stars were all targets of the private investigators.

Today, the Guardian reveals details of the suppressed evidence which may open the door to hundreds more legal actions by victims of News Group, the Murdoch company that publishes the News of the World and the Sun, as well as provoking police inquiries into reporters who were involved and the senior executives responsible for them."
It is a detailed and sensational story and I'm not in a position to comment on its veracity, but it does have the hallmarks of a well-researched and accurate account.

There's no doubt that the level of trust in journalists has eroded over recent years and, if it wasn't for the scandalous behaviour of some Members of Parliament, it's possible that no profession - no, not even estate agents - would come below journalists in a league table of 'trustworthiness'. In turn, this makes people question what we write more and more - see for example my post earlier this week on the reaction of readers to our article on swine flu in Leicester. Clearly articles like the one by Nick Davies don't help and few people are likely to spend much time wondering whether or not they should tar all journalists with the same brush any more than they would worry about generalising a claim that 'all MPs are on the take.'

I only really want to say one thing about the Nick Davies article and that is this: no journalist at the Leicester Mercury uses illegal methods to find stories.

How can I be so sure? If you get a moment, read media pundit Roy Greenslade's comments on Davies' revelations:

"In my years on popular papers - as an editor and a senior executive on the Daily Mirror, The Sun and the Daily Star - it was inconceivable that any journalist could have produced an exclusive story without revealing its provenance.

It was the first question an executive asked of a reporter? How did you get it? And when the executive, be it news editor, features editor, assistant editor, whoever, presented that story at a conference, any editor worth his/her salt would ask the same."