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.



Blair Memoirs, Hague Denies — The UK Media

The British media is just getting sillier. I wasn’t sure it was possible but after watching and reading the coverage this week of Tony Blair’s memoirs and of the gay rumors swirling around the Foreign Secretary William Hague that is the only conclusion I can reach.

On Blair, the U.K. media has been focused mainly on the former Prime Minister’s disclosures about how poor his relationship was with the dour and obsessed Gordon Brown, his grim-faced Chancellor of the Exchequer. Poor old Tony had to put up with constant conpsiring by Brown and his gang – allegedly Brown even triggered the party investigation into the money-for-honors scandal that dogged 18 months of Blair’s premiership. Some commentators rightly castigated Blair for his playing the victim in his memoirs – ye Gods, he was the Prime Minister and should have sacked Brown.

But the news pages have been taken the Blair claims far too seriously instead of questioning far more strongly whether the former Prime Minister should be writing in the vein he does. Virtually all politeness and conventional form have been thrown out in the book by Blair – he dishes on former colleagues, reveals private conversations with members of the Royal family, etc. One expects this kind of thing from Labour’s gosipy “prince of darkness” Peter Mandelson but should a former Prime Minister be writing in this way?

Blair has produced a “soap book” — not a serious, substantial tome. His chapter on Iraq – and his refusal to accept that he and Bush made any mistakes – should have been the media focus and not the “Brown was mean to me” stuff.

And Hague? After putting up with weeks of a semi-public media whispering campaign, Hague decided earlier this week to rebut blog-launched allegations that he had slept with a male aide. To add credence to his rebutal he went into detail about the difficulties he and his wife have been facing in trying to conceive a child. Now the poor man has to put up with claims that his denial is a public relations blunder – too much information, according to The Times.

The BBC has been running the Hague story as its second lead most of the day with news anchors questioning public relations “experts” and spin-doctors. Sheila Gunn, a former colleague on The Times and now a political consultant, argued that Hague has just prolonged the story by “giving it oxygen.”

Well, it didn’t need any external oxygen before – the blogger Guido just carried on making the allegations with nothing to go on except a photograph showing the aide and Hague walking along the street dressed GQ casual and smiling and the fact – not connected with the picture — that during the election campaign they shared a room with twin beds in it. And with nothing to go on now, the media is keeping the gay allegations going by questioning the public relations efficacy of his denial. And this is journalism?

Hague was utterly right to issue a denial and I don’t see how disclosing the problems he and his wife are facing in trying to create a family will do him any harm with the public. As the newspapers watch their circulations decline — and as the BBC watches its standing fall — maybe they should all rethink how they cover the news.


Celleno has been on holiday but is now back.

The Times and Sunday Times have seen massive declines in Online readership since News International introduced a pay-wall in June, according to calculations done by the Guardian newspaper. The fall-off may be between 84 and 93 percent – in line with industry predictions before the wall was erected.

The Guardian argues that The Times has now traffic of between 84,800 and 195,700 daily unique users. In February, The Times site had 1.2 million daily unique users, according to ABCe data.

This blog has argued consistently that pay-walls for general daily newspapers won’t work – there are plenty of capable rivals around allowing free access and (The Times isn’t that good). Celleno maintains that pay-walls will only work for niche or specialty publications, especially in the business and sports areas.

iPad Could Save Newspapers

Speaking in Washington DC yesterday Rupert Murdoch said he had “got a glimpse of the future last weekend with the Apple iPad. It is a wonderful thing.”

“If you have less newspapers and more of these… it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry,” he added.

His comments point to what I suggested in a posting the other day: that the paywall News International intends to place around The Times and Sunday Times this summer is now part of a more thought through strategy than when Murdoch first started to threaten to do it last year.

In a Q@A session last week The Times editor James Harding clearly indicated that the pricing difference between the digital editions and print editions was aimed at making the digital far more attractive.

I think Murdoch is right that the iPad and similar tablet devices could well be the saving of the “newspaper” industry.

Johnstone Press Abandons Paywall

The Johnstone Press, the publisher of the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post, is to scrap an experimental paywall it erected around several of its newspapers. The trial, which saw different pricing and schemes being tried across its local and regional UK newspaper empire, saw poor take-up. The scrapping of the scheme comes just days after News International announced it intended to charge from June for online access to The Times and Sunday Times. Will the national titles fare better?

News International has started to market heavily the pay scheme, offering early registration and a chance to preview the new sites and multi-media fare that will accompany the introduction of the charge.

Game-Changing at The Times

Apparently The Times editor, James Harding, shares my thought that there is a financial flaw in News International’s paywall plan. Why pay 8.50 pounds a week for the print editions of The Times and Sunday Times when you will be able from June to read both online for 2 pounds?

According to Harding that price difference is exactly the point. In a Q&A session with readers he made this comment:  “I hope that what we’re doing is providing a simple price and one that, even in these difficult times, is affordable. It’ll be £2 a week for all seven days. The print editions will cost you £8.50. And, I hope, that over time you’ll see that the digital editions of The Times and The Sunday Times will give you so much more…”

In other words this is a game-changing approach designed to slowly kill the papers and turn them into digital online products while bringing the readers along at the same time. Harding says that the digital product to be launched will be innovative. “We can do so much more online: we can provide video, interactive graphics, personalised news feeds and a chance for people to engage, directly, with our journalists.”

Obviously, this is a big market to play in with some tough rivals. They include the BBC and ITN, who both have free sites. Can News International pull this off? Certainly it is a brave move and one preparing the papers for a time when most readers will read their papers on tablets, I-Pads and computers. Curious, though, that one had to find out Harding’s thoughts in a Q&A session and that News International hasn’t marketed or announced such thinking behind the paywall.

Murdoch to Mount the Charge

So Rupert Murdoch will start in June throwing a paywall around the websites of The Times and Sunday Times. Online readers will be charged £1 for a day’s access or £2 for a week’s subscription. Payment will allow access to both websites.

A weekly subscription will give readers also access apparently to an e-paper version and other new, as yet unnamed, digital applications. Those who already subscribe to the print edition of either paper will also gain free online access. The Times editor is gung-ho: “Now, we are leading the way again. Our new website – with a strong, clean design – will have all the values of the printed paper and all the versatility of digital media. We want people to do more than just read it – to be part of it,” James Harding announced in a press release.

He continued: “The coming editions of The Times on phones, e-readers, tablets and mobile devices will tell the most important and interesting stories in the newest ways. Our aim is to keep delivering The Times, but better.”

Now let’s see if it works. I have written elsewhere on this blog that Murdoch doesn’t really get the Web – News International was much slower than its UK newspaper rivals at the Guardian and the Telegraph, to exploit the Web. Likewise in the U.S. with American cable rivals. His belated internet purchases to try to catch up have fizzled badly: he over-paid for already established sites and has generally made a hash of them, MySpace being the best example.

Paywalls as conceived by Murdoch may be over aggressive at this stage. Total paywalls may well put off users, especially in the absence of rivals following suit – a blend of free and paid-for is far more likely to succeed. Paywalls have an effect of reducing online social marketing, blocking blogs and social media sites from linking to stories and giving them wider dissemination.

Clearly, as the online World develops and as new tablets and e-reader devices are developed, paying for content is likely to reassert itself: there will be a convergence of hardware, reading habits and the ability to personalise and market more surgically that will encourage payment. And those who really want real news – you know, the kind that actually involves news-gathering and reporting facts as opposed to opinion-mongering and shouting at opponents on talk shows – will need to pay if they want to get anything of value or authority. News-gathering is expensive. The waning of real reporting and the reduction in the numbers of real reporters able to place events and facts into context in an informing way is becoming ever more apparent.

But is Murdoch too early and too over-reaching? I suspect so. For instance, News International clearly has made the decision to keep the price low for online access in order not to drive away online readers. But is the price too low, if the company wants to keep people buying the actual print editions? Why spend 6 pounds a week on buying the hard-copy The Times when one pound will get you a week’s online access plus other features? Two pounds will get you both papers online. And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of a copy of the print edition of the Sunday Times. Okay, you can subsrcibe to the papers and get everything. But we shall see what we see.

UK Newspapers Take a Pounding

The UK’s national newspaper circulations fell badly in September. The Guardian and Independent fell 9.7 per cent and 15.6 per cent year on year respectively. But the biggest loser among the quality dailies was my old paper The Times, down 10.4 per cent. Despite its international brand name, the Independent has a circulation way below 200,000. Is it time it followed the example of the Christian Science Monitor – namely, be exclusively an online product and focus solely on international news? When is it going to close its sister Sunday newspaper, a paper that adds little to its brand and doesn’t help with the finances?

The circulations for the once excellent indigenous Scottish qualities make for grim reading. Another one of my old papers, Scotland on Sunday, twice the UK newspaper of the year, has seen its circulation halved in less than a decade. Both the Scotsman and the Herald are selling fewer copies than some major regional English dailies. Andrew Neil did not help the commercial cause of the Scotsman Group when the Barclays Brothers were the owners: telling the Scots they are a miserable lot and should be more like the English tends not to boost newspaper sales over the border. But, of course, it is not all Neil’s fault: the Internet reaper is doing its bits in Scotland, too. Clearly the only way forward for the Herald and Scotsman Groups is somehow to bridge the west-east cultural divide in Scotland and to merge.