Phone hacking is only part of the story

The cover of the last edition of today's NotW

Anyone who’s worked in a newsroom will understand the uncomfortable situations journalists sometimes have to address when pursuing a story. A very good example of this – which I have experienced – is the ‘death knock’, where reporters are sent to interview a family who has just suffered a tragedy. Often, the best stories result from such endeavors – and they have shifted many millions of copies of newspapers over the years. But they can also be painful for all concerned.

I once visited the family of Michael Hodder, who was the train driver involved in the Paddington train crash in October 1999, whilst working on a local paper in his home town of Reading. Six months into the job, I got nowhere that day; Sky and the The Sun were already there – and were greeted by a furious and very upset man who chased them down the street. We had been tipped off about Hodder’s Reading connection by someone who worked in the office who knew his family. It often happens that way. But I also remember the police being bemused at how quickly a posse of tabloid reporters had turned up following the same lead (who had given it to them?).

Not all experiences are like this; some people will let you into their house, speak openly and at length and feel later that they have benefited from speaking to someone, anyone, who’s prepared to listen and using the media to tell their story. While some people inevitably resent being asked for a few words in their darkest hour, it would be wrong to call this sort of approach an ‘intrusion’ in its truest sense. Journalists are quite entitled to ask to speak to someone, so long as they are up-front about who they are and what they want. And, if they are asked to leave, they should respect that and go away.

It’s clear to me since I left newspapers that, as far as the national media are concerned, this exchange does not take place in quite the same way. Often, the tactics used can border on harassment: people are pressured into giving interviews or tricked into providing information for a ‘tribute piece’. Now, it looks like many of them have had their personal details obtained illegally and their phones hacked, which many will rightly see as the ultimate insult.

I’ve been moved to blog about this today after hearing the line repeated this week that the current stock of tabloid journalists are ‘clean’ and carrying the can for their former colleagues’ sins. I’m prepared to assume that phone hacking does not go on to the extent that it has done in the past. But, even if that were true, it is only part of the story – and doesn’t begin to touch on the way the tabloids routinely trample on the lives of ordinary folk who have only the widely derided Press Complaints Commission to defend them.  There are no expensive lawyers or PR advisors for the likes of the Wells and Chapman families.

Look at what happened to Christopher Jefferies last Christmas after he was arrested in connection with Jo Yeates’ murder. Jefferies, remember, was never charged, but had his character shredded by a stream of lurid headlines which only just stopped short of saying outright that he was guilty of murder. He’s been forgotten as the story moved on and Yeates’ killer caught and convicted; but there are many more people like Jefferies who are chewed up and spat out in the media’s quest for a story. Contempt of Court rulings against some of the worst offenders may still come from this – but it’s been a long time coming and will be of little comfort to Jefferies.

It’s worth sharing a story that’s appeared on the Shropshire Star website today, from local PR consultant Jools Payne who writes about the tabloids’ persistent and unwelcome intrusions into her young son’s grief after his girlfriend was killed by her father in a high-profile murder case. It makes some considered points about the role social media can play in fueling these stories (journalists used Facebook to glean publicly available details about her son’s girlfriend). It is also a vivid reminder of the fact that the poor conduct of the media goes well beyond the hacking of mobile phones. It’s about stalking in bushes after being asked to leave someone’s property; it’s about tricking personal details out of friends and employers; it’s about the corrupting impact such powerful institutions can have on public life; and, most upsetting for some, it’s about the way the media has connived to shaft the very same decent and ordinary people that they claim to be fighting for.

A ‘phone hacking inquiry’, as it’s now been described, won’t go far enough for people like Jefferies or Mrs Payne. Any probe into the way the media operates has to look the importance and relevance of ethics, legal training, the truth and the public interest in journalistic practice, as well as the powerlessness of the public to stop organisations from intruding into (and in some cases ruining) their lives.

This should not mean that ‘death knocks’ must stop. It’s the way these people are treated that matters, not that they are approached at all. The privacy and dignity of those who have suffered such tragic losses must be respected. It’s quite clear that this is not the case on too many occasions. And that’s about more than hacking people’s phones.