In Defense of Hacking and Blagging

Forbes’ media blogger Jeff Bercovici today takes issue with a public interest defense for journalists to phone hack. The prompt for his post is a 2006 admission voluntarily made by The Guardian’s top investigative reporter David Leigh that he had listened to voicemails of people he was targeting and lied about his identity on phone calls to secure information. Lying about your identity is known in the trade as blagging.

Bercovici notes the irony in this considering that The Guardian was the newspaper most responsible for bringing to light the appalling phone hacking of celebrities and the bereaved by the News of the World. Although he doesn’t himself condemn Leigh or dismiss a public interest defense, he turns to the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, who apparently teaches media ethics. And she does the condemning for him.

He asked her whether Leigh’s public interest defense holds water? And she dismisses the defense pretty much out of hand. “The problem with that is he’s suggesting that the ends justify the means. In most ethical reasoning it doesn’t because it’s a subjective call. For him, it’s exposing bribery and corruption. For somebody else it might be exposing that some pop star lip synchs over his songs.”

He then paraphrases her, saying that “breaking the law in pursuit of a story — or committing a legal breach of journalistic ethics, such as misrepresenting one’s identity — is only excusable if it’s a story that’s not only in the public interest but impossible to get at through other means.” And that McBride is sure “almost never happens.”

Apparently, a “diligent enough reporter with good enough sources can always get the story with above-board methods.”

I suspect neither Bercovici nor McBride have much knowledge of David Leigh’s journalism. They seem also to have little understanding of the legal situation in the UK, where courts have upheld a public interest defense, or the ethics code of the UK’s Press Complaints Commission.

And I am pretty sure after researching the careers of both that neither has spent that much time investigating international gunrunners, spies, drug cartels or public corruption. On Poynter’s website there is mention that McBride, while a local reporter in Idaho, wrote some stories on white supremacists and the meth trade, but most of her reporting has been on religion.

First, to David Leigh’s journalism: His work back in the 1970s and 1980s did a lot to bring to light the attempts by some in British intelligence to destabilize the Wilson government. In the 1990s, his journalism led to the jailing for perjury of former UK Conservative defense minister Jonathan Aitken. In the 1990s, he wrote with Rob Evans a series of corruption articles on the international arms giant BAE Systems – articles that prompted prosecutions on both sides of the Atlantic and led the company to be fined more than $500 million. I don’t see anything from Bercovici or McBride that would compete with this quality of work — so some respect may be in order here.

Is McBride suggesting that none of these stories could be considered to be in the public interest? Could any intelligent judge for one moment fear that these kind of articles could be confused for a second with tabloid tittle-tattle about celebrities, or that even a tabloid journalist would not be red-faced in trying to suggest that there was an equal public interest in exposing the fact that some pop star lip synchs over his songs?

(On a broader ethical point, it is not always wrong to justify the means by the ends. In real life, it depends on the circumstances. And when it comes to formal philosophy I assume as an ethicist McBride is aware of the theory of consequentialism, a term coined by the Cambridge philosopher GEM Anscombe in her 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy to describe a central error in some moral theories put forward by JS Mill and Sidgwick. Consequentialism now refers to moral theories which hold that the consequences of actions are the true basis for judgments about the morality of conduct. So there is a debate about this for ethicists)

Second, McBride should be careful in assuming that the laws in the UK and the US are the same. David Leigh is right. There is a public interest defense contained in the UK’s Data Protection Act.

And there is also a public interest clause available in the journalism ethics code of the Press Complaints Commission. For example, the code says this: “Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.” So, Leigh has grounds for arguing that he broke no ethical guidelines of his profession.

For McBride subterfuge should only rarely be invoked — hell, if you are a half-decent journalist you should always be able to get the sources and the stories without subterfuge, she sniffed, remember. But it really does depend on what journalism you are doing.

Like David Leigh I have resorted in the past to subterfuge to secure information on Mexican drug cartels, Russian crime syndicates, terrorist groups, intelligence operations, human trafficking and public corruption. I don’t think it would have been a good idea, for example, to wander around Juarez or other Mexican border towns or in Colombia on various stories and be that open about my identity and what I was doing. Not only would I have failed to secure the information I was hoping to get but I would have also endangered my life and the lives of those who were assisting me.

Have I listened to voicemails? Yes, from tapes supplied (unofficially) to me by US law enforcement agents and Colombian police of intercepted conversations between drug traffickers. Was that questionable? No, there was a clear public interest in the journalism I was doing.

Have I ever hacked a phone myself? Yes, for a big investigation back in 1992 for The Times of London on how easy it was to hack cell phone conversations using a cheap scanner sold in British high street stores and costing then about $30. This was back in the analogue days of mobile telecommunications and the industry was claiming that you couldn’t hack cell phones and, maybe, if you could, only one side of the conversation could be eavesdropped on.

I spent a week listening to hundreds of conversations. You could only do this at random but the information I secure was deeply disturbing. I was able to secure credit card and bank details galore. I knew when the top civil servant in Northern Ireland was due to land at Heathrow airport and where he would be going and then his time of departure back to Belfast (this was when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still very much on). I discovered where police anti-terrorist checkpoints were planned for in London. I listened into several calls from MPs, and heard an extraordinary row between the lead singer of a major pop group and the band’s agent.

What did we do with all of this information? Of course, we didn’t publish the details of credit cards or bank accounts nor did we name the pop band, etc. We did indicate what kind of information we had received and played up the security aspect of the dangers of cell phone conversations.

In short, without hacking we could not illustrate our public interest point – use cell phones with care, you don’t know who might be listening and you could be giving away vital information. The BBC followed our expose, and the mobile telecommunications industry was left embarrassed. Sorry, Ms. McBride, we didn’t think getting sources to say how easy it was to hack would have quite the same impact as doing it.

On blagging, I could give several personal examples. But one may suffice. Back in the mid-1990s I was writing for the Washington Times Corp. a series of articles on organized crime in Germany and central Europe. One concerned human trafficking. To be more specific, it focused on the trafficking of young women from further east, especially Ukraine and Russia. To be able to secure interviews and to get around pimps and guards, I did not reveal my purpose or my job. Was that wrong?

What is curious — or maybe not — about Bercovici’s post is he doesn’t mention the examples David Leigh uses to illustate his point about public interest journalism and phone hacking and blagging.

Here they are:

“I, too, once listened to the mobile phone messages of a corrupt arms company executive.” And,

“I still treasure the moment when I rang up Mark Thatcher in Downing Street. Thatcher was secretly on the payroll of a firm trying to get a construction deal in Oman. But at the time, we could not yet prove a link between him and the Middle East fixer concerned, whose name was Jamil Amyuni. ‘Who’s calling?’ said the Downing Street switchboard. I said ‘Tell him it’s Jamil Amyuni’. In two seconds flat, Mark came on the line, and shouted cheerily ‘Hi, Jamil!’ We had our story. Was I wrong to do that? Surely not. We were successfully exposing what many people thought was misbehaviour by the then prime minister’s son, who was shamelessly exploiting his position.”

Of course, offering the detail David Leigh supplied would have weakened the Forbes’ post. I assume that is why the author chose to leave them out.

What the News of the World was up to in hacking the voicemail systems of celebrities and the bereaved parents of British soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan was outrageous. The paper had no public interest defense in hacking the voice mails left on the phone of a missing girl, either. It was illegal and ethically indefensible. But let’s take care not to throw the baby out with the dirty bath water. Public interest journalism can entail the need for hacking and blagging.