Guardian journalist Nick Davies turned up the heat on the News of the World yesterday by producing before MPs evidence that chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck was at least aware that phone hacking was going on.
So what? Some might say. But the News of the World has always maintained that Royals report Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, both jailed in January 2007, were the only people involved in phone hacking.
Davies produced an email showing that a transcript of a bugged phone call had been apparently prepared for Thurlbeck.
It is surprising that Davies did not include this information in a news report for his paper, rather than revealing it first to MPs. And one possible explanation is that he preferred to do it protected from possible libel action by parliamentary privilege.
The other document revealed by Davies yesterday revealed that former NoW assistant editor Greg Miskiw was involved in buying information from Paul Williams (apparently a pseudonmy for investigator Mulcaire) over a story about Graham Taylor (who we now know was also bugged by the NoW). But it makes no mention of phone-bugging.
So far, so fair enough.
But what seems strange about Davies’ evidence is that he then went on to say that he had the names of 31 journalists from News Group who had paid for information from a private investigator.
This is not the first time The Guardian has drawn a link between the Goodman/Mulcaire case and these seperate payments involving private investigator Steve Whittamore.
These were exposed by the Information Commissioner’s Operation Motorman in 2006.
This is old news. Why bring it up now? And why bring it up in a way that does not also mention that just about every other Fleet Street newspaper was using Whittamore, and that the Information Commissioner did not bother to tell us what proportion of the information gathered by him was completely legal anyway.
The News of the World is in hot water if it turns out that it has misled the public over the extent of the phone-hacking which was going on.
But The Guardian also needs to stick to the facts and not cloud its case by including innuendo.
Similary, the NoW does itself a disservice when it uses a leader column – as it did on Sunday – to rather misleadingly sling mud at The Guardian, saying: “Let us remember that it was The Guardian that knowingly , deliberately and illegally forged a cabinet minister’s signature to get an exclusive story.”
No-one would argue that The Guardian was not completely right to use a bit of subterfuge to reveal the fact that Jonatahn Aitken was a liar and a perjurer back in 1995.
The danger in all this is that we end up undermining the essential right of journalists to bend the rules when neccessary to expose far greater wrongdoing.
Afterall, The Telegraph paid for apparently stolen information which contained much that was undoubtedly private (such as details of private telephone calls and numbers) in order to expose a much greater injustice about MPs’ expenses.
Press Gazette reported back in 2006 that the hacking of mobile phone messages (or phone screwing) was incredibly widespread before the Goodman case.
It seems that many journalists didn’t even realise it was wrong.
Sources told me at the time: “When you’ve got a contact that can do this, everyone will use them – the newsdesk will use them, showbiz will use them. There will be a lot more to come out than just this specific case.”
Another former red-top news reporter said: ‘It is extremely prevalent among the Sunday tabloids – it goes on all the time.”
What this all essentially comes down to is invasion of privacy.
And that is justified, when a public interest can be proven.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act used to jail Goodman is a red-herring – and a draconian law used to ensure that only the state is allowed to bug people.
It was a travesty that Goodman was sent to jail for what was essentially an invasion of privacy.