If we have learned one thing from the first part of the Leveson Inquiry, it is this: for the first decade of this century there was a culture of casual lawlessness on many of the news and show-business desks in Fleet Street.
Part of this can be put down to new technology. It was relatively easy to listen to telephone messages or to guess the answers to security questions for email accounts. It was not much harder to use a “Trojan horse” email attachment or to “blag” a record of calls from a mobile telephone company. And it certainly was not difficult to pay a specialist private investigator to do any of these unlawful things.
There was also ignorance of the relevant laws. Ignorance doesn’t excuse anyone from liability for criminal acts, but it helps explain the culture of unethical behaviour. A generation of reporters and in-house lawyers, fully aware of the technicalities of libel and contempt, appear to have had no real idea of technology law.
Few seemed to know that interfering with someone’s email account, let alone using an intrusive Trojan horse programme, was a breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990. In the Nightjack case, where a reporter unmasked a blogger after hacking his email, even the experienced former legal manager of the Times freely admitted that he had no idea of the existence of the act or the offences it details.
Such a culture is what can develop in business when “self-regulation” is non-existent. The sorts of ethical restraints that can come from professionalism or just good leadership are easily ignored under the pressure of deadlines and bullying editors anxious to fill their paper with copy.
However, this is where technology again has an impact. The publication of news on the internet or stored in electronic archives means that journalists and their managers can remain accountable for what they publish years after the stories have gone to print. A byline is now not only a measure of achievement but also a potential curse. Any hacking can leave electronic traces long after the story has been forgotten by anyone other than the victim.
On the books
A third lesson from Leveson is that “statutory” is not a dirty word. Many in the mainstream media have a knee-jerk reaction against “statutory” regulation but do not seem to know what the word means. A statutory power is one that has its basis in legislation rather than in a contract or
a non-binding code. And a statutory power is always specific; it is a precise device to get something done.
In the Nightjack case, it was the use of statutory powers by the Leveson inquiry that uncovered the Times using computer hacking to source
a story and then misleading the High Court. Left to self-regulation none of this would ever have come out. Whatever the solution to the problems caused by the ethics and practices of the press, it is now rather clear that they are not able to sensibly regulate themselves.
David Allen Green is the New Statesman’s legal correspondent