Former News of the World reporter Bethany Usher (who was herself arrested and then quickly cleared) reflects on the phone-hacking scandal after the sentencing today of four of her former colleagues. Usher is now a journalism lecturer at Teesside University
In mitigation before today’s sentencing, Andy Coulson, former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck and their colleagues James Weatherup and Greg Miskiw all publicly admitted involvement in phone-hacking for the first time.
They said they did it simply because they thought it was allowed.
This was understandable because it was in The Press Complaints Commission code of conduct which, incredibly, still says there is a public interest defence for intercepting telecommunications.
This was repeated in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and the News of the World staff handbook which made adhering to the Code of Practice a professional responsibility. Thurlbeck, while claiming there was a public interest defence for the hacking he commissioned, submitted the handbook as mitigation.
They were also told it was okay by media lawyers, who use the public interest as a defence for all kinds of crimes committed by journalists as part of their work. It’s for that reason that buying a stolen disc containing the expenses details of politicians, for example, did not lead to prosecution.
Of course there really is no public interest defence for the routine hacking of celebrities’ phone messages. What should have been used rarely for stories of significance became a fishing exercise. Their mitigation doesn’t stand up when considering the speculative hacking of Glenn Mulcaire.
Equally, there can be no excuse for listening to the voicemail of someone who has died or their family, although it could be argued attempting to find a missing child is in the public interest.
Given one news editor would regularly demand the numbers of my own contacts, some of whom had also lost loved ones, I find the hacking of the phones of murder victims and their families particularly troubling.
But, while I was never in a position where I would have considered it, I wonder whether for all journalists there should be times when listening to phone messages would be a justified breach of the law?
If a reporter had finally been able to stand up the endless accusations about Jimmy Savile, or evidence of a paedophile ring at the heart of Government, would the public see it as in their interest? What about if I could prove a Prime Minister had knowingly employed a criminal or had lied about reasons for entering a war? Would it be justified then?
Perhaps this police investigation and public inquiry has irrevocably changed the industry and popular support for journalists and so the answer is a resounding 'No'. And maybe some of that is for the good. But I do wonder whether how many reporters are now unwilling to take any risks in case they end up in The Clink.
I also wonder whether, if it happened during this current chilly climate, the stolen MPs' expenses disc would result in the arrests of both the journalists who bought it and the public officials who sold it.
Before the hacking scandal, when I told people I’d worked at the News of the World they often asked how many stories were made up. I said, to the best of my knowledge, none. Lawyers demanded the highest levels of proof from their reporters.
I was arrested because I’d transcribed a voicemail given to me by a source to stand up a story he was selling. It took just ten days for the police to verify I’d been given it legitimately rather than obtaining it through hacking, helped by the fact I’d taped our conversation, as was demanded by the NoW legal team.
During police questioning I was asked how well I knew the men sentenced today. Having spent most of my time on the road in the North, I’d only met most of them less than a handful of times. I’ve seen Neville Thurlbeck once more since.
He gave an insightful lecture about what makes a good Fleet Street journalist and changes to press freedom to my students shortly after his guilty plea late last year. Eloquent as ever, but also humble and contrite, it was a fascinating session.
Afterwards some students said they hoped he didn’t go to jail as he was “too nice”, seduced by the notorious charm which helped him keep many a source on side.
I said they were underestimating him and that I was sure he was tough enough to survive relatively unscathed. As he faces his first night behind bars, I do hope I’m right.
When asked whether he’d known about Rebekah Brooks and Coulson’s relationship, Neville said no one in the newsroom had a clue. They’d managed to keep it quiet right under the noses of some of the most experienced muckrakers in the industry.
“They were close colleagues for a long period of time and I feel for them and their families,” he added. “I know this makes me a terrible hypocrite.”
Chatting afterwards Neville told me that after long discussions with the police and prosecution, he couldn’t bring himself to give evidence against those former colleagues, despite the chance it could have reduced his sentence.
Judge Saunders said this week he was disappointed that “very successful, investigative, capable journalists” were not prepared to “come clean” until mitigation.
Now the gloves are well and truly off and these once lauded multi-award winning journalists are threatened and ridiculed. I have a little experience of how they may feel. During the 10 days before I was cleared, I was bombarded with abuse on email and social media.
Much of that was as a result of the timing of my arrest which was the first during the Leveson Inquiry and as such there was heightened interest. Despite being unimportant both at the News of the World and in terms of the investigation, my picture was splashed across the national news.
Like many comments directed at Rebekah Brooks, criticism was often highly gendered. There were suggestions about how I’d managed to get to Fleet Street at a young age and how I’d found some of my best stories. There were comments about my physical appearance and my sexual history. Some questioned my ability to ‘hack’ being a journalist, given I’d left the industry before I was 30.
I made the decision to move into academia because, while I hadn’t been asked to do anything illegal, I was often asked to do things I couldn’t square with my own conscience.
This included having to feed an incessant hunger for celebrity stories which was the number one priority under the editorship of Coulson, a former showbiz columnist for The Sun.
Perhaps naively, I’d become a journalist because I wanted, if not to change the world, then to at least try to make it better for people in communities like mine.
It’s the reason I chose tabloid journalism. No one I knew read the broadsheets. They simply did not speak to or for the mining and shipbuilding town where I was raised.
But by the time I got there the agenda of those papers seemed less concerned about fighting for the rights of working class people and more about keeping them distracted with meaningless fluff. And I certainly did not intend to spend my entire working life writing about the likes of Kerry Katona.
Indeed the place where I felt my work really mattered to ordinary people was not at the nationals but when working as a regional reporter.
Unfortunately, despite no accusations of a local newspaper being involved in phone hacking or bribing public officials, they are paying a heavy price for this scandal.
Throughout all of this, my old pal Pat Lavelle has popped into my mind time and again. He was my first news ed having given me a job after work experience.
I last saw him a few weeks before his death in March 2010 when he took me out for lunch. He died of the disease of the hack; too much coffee and too many fags.
If it hadn’t been for the relationship Pat built with detectives at West Yorkshire Police and his continuous pressure on them to DNA test the letters sent by Wearside Jack – the Yorkshire Ripper Hoaxer – John Humble would not have been found.
He was a brilliant local news hound who spent hours immersed in investigations, working his contacts in both the police and the criminal underworld. And in that he was one of the last of his kind.
Locals once depended on their relationships with public officials. Reporters began every morning doing “a round of calls” – ringing every duty inspector and fire station in their area – and going through the overnight logs. That’s how they got stories from their patch long before the nationals and the television. And that’s one of the reasons people bought them.
Now they are reliant on press officers who often think their job is to stop reporters finding out what is happening and feed them yarns about cleaning up graffiti and lower crime stats.
It also makes it more difficult for a young reporter from the regions to pique the interest of Fleet Street by getting a good line on a news story that’s made the nationals, like I did a decade ago.
And these foot soldiers didn’t even get a say in all this. Leveson wheeled out a selection of London’s great and good while in places like Ipswich and Liverpool and Glasgow and Country Durham reporters plodded on, trying to make a difference in an increasingly impossible climate, without even the ability to speak to their local cops.
The most damaging consequence of phone-hacking and the way it has been used to curb press freedom is that it has succeeded in stopping any reporter speaking to any public official without the nod from the Great Press God in HQ.
In this they’ve ensured there will be no more Pat Lavelles. No more local newspaper hacks who use their contacts in public office to build brilliant investigations which matter to local people.
And that – for ordinary people all over this country- is perhaps the greatest travesty resulting from phone hacking, accusations of bribing public officials and subsequent changes to press freedom.
The Sun and other national papers will continue on, with the lawyers and the money to fight their corner. Local newspapers may not have that chance.