Hackers and Spies: Reporters and their Ethics

November 13, 2013 • Ethics and Quality, Press Freedom • by

After a career as both a journalist (BBC and ITN) and a regulator (Ofcom) I had come to the conclusion that my colleagues in British journalism weren’t very interested in reading rules that somebody had written for them. How then to write a book about the ethics and regulation  of journalism that some British journalists might actually want to read?

The first and rather obvious decision was not to use the word ‘ethics’ in the title. Instead ‘When Reporters Cross the Line, the heroes, the villains, the hackers and the spies’ said what the book was about, made a connection with a current issue (the UK phone-hacking trials) and with a proven  success in the publishing industry ( books about traitorous espionage by well-connected Brits).

Since nobody ever seems to have defined when exactly reporters do cross this ‘ line’ that so many talk of , my co-author Jeff Hulbert and I resisted the temptation to deliver a verdict at the end of each of the 14 case studies looking back over the past century. The case studies were where academic research met story-telling. They ranged from well-known British broadcast journalists  and their strange encounters with the regulation demanding  ‘due impartiality’ to a newspaper correspondent who was also both a Russian spy and a  British propagandist and a Reuters bureau chief in cold-war Berlin who switched sides and worked for  the East Germans. In a concluding chapter ‘the Morals of the Stories’ I tried to offer some general thoughts distilled from all the research we had conducted into the specifics.

We were writing at a time when the Leveson Inquiry process and its political aftermath focused on a search for legal and regulatory precision, partly to prevent the press escaping yet again to continue drinking in what was once called the ‘last-chance saloon’. I’d even found time to contribute to a 100 page paper to Leveson which tried to pin down the details of a new system . But the more I honed the conclusions of our book the more the lessons of the past inevitably pointed to legal and regulatory imprecision when making judgements about journalism.

Lord Justice Leveson himself gave an impromptu seminar in one hearing where he explained the various ways in which a journalist might appear to  break a law but could escape punishment because a public prosecutor, a judge or a jury might decide the breach was ‘in the public interest’. I also found a recent precedent of a broadcast news organisation which had undoubtedly broken a law and a statutory regulation but neither the law nor the regulator moved against it.

In a search for some advice we could offer aspiring young journalists I turned to the evidence given by one witness to Leveson. David Leigh, then the investigations editor of The Guardian, told the judge that he had once hacked a phone but  believed the story was in the public interest. Leigh’s evidence offered up what we christened ‘Leigh’s Line’:

 ‘I think I would say a journalist ought to be prepared to face up to the consequences of what they’ve done. I mean if I do something that I think is OK in the public interest, I have to be prepared to take the consequences’.

My own conclusion was that whatever ‘independent self-regulatory’ model eventually flows from Leveson, nothing will ever be quite the same after the transparency and accountability the hearings represented. The outside possibility of being questioned in public, the chance of the disclosure of internal newsroom emails and the likelihood of peer review on social media have changed behaviours and will continue to do so. Those who believe they can meet a public interest test should have nothing to fear.

 

‘When Reporters Cross The Line: the heroes, the villains, the hackers and the spies’ by Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert is published by Biteback.

photo credit: Emory Allen/Flickr CC

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