In defence of (some) blagging

Part of the emerging narrative about journalism appears to criticise all newspapers for recklessly (or ‘illegally’) blagging people’s personal details without justification for doing so. If this is accurate, the public would be right to believe that every journalist who ‘blags’ information (or pays someone to do it for them) is as bad as the rest.

This appears to be the mood amongst many on Twitter, as well as some people with (perhaps) an interest in restricting the press. 

Witness this tweet from the blogger Guido Fawkes – which implies the Guardian Media Group (which publishes The Guardian and The Observer) has broken the law as well as its ethical code.!/GuidoFawkes/status/99498277510184960

Guido is speaking about the Operation Motorman invoices, which details transactions between more than 300 journalists and private investigators paid to ‘blag’ personal details to help them stand up a story. In a trawl of the same details, Guido has alleged that The Daily Mirror paid more than £440,000 to private investigators when Piers Morgan was editor – which is, unsurprisingly perhaps, substantially more than Guardian Media Group’s transactions. He’s made further claims today, this time allegations of phone hacking against Guardian journalist David Leigh.  

Operation Motorman was an investigation launched by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2003 into the use of private investigators to obtain personal information. It claimed that evidence documented thousands of Data Protection offences, used to uncover things like ex-directory phone numbers, addresses and other confidential records. It resulted in the report in 2006, What price privacy now? which contained details of those newspapers who had paid private investigators – and The Observer came ninth out of 32 publications in the list, ahead of The People and The Sun. On the face of it, this certainly exposes GMG to charges of hypocrisy.

It would be easy to assume that all blagging (which does not include phone hacking) is unjustified. But if done in the public interest, to expose criminality or corruption, for example, it it can be legitimate – and legal. This is in stark contrast to phone hacking, which does not carry a public interest defence in law (and is therefore always illegal).

The Observer’s response earlier this year to being highlighted in this list makes a similar point, and is worth reading. Reader’s editor Stephen Pritchard said:

“Former reporters told me they were working to uncover illegal arms deals, drugs trafficking, Islamic terrorism and political intrigue; stories they believed to be in the public interest that went on to appear in the paper. They said that the names that turn up in [private investigator] Whittamore’s register were people who would be, in the main, hard to find; individuals who would not make themselves available for interview. They felt it was right that they should attempt to find those people and put allegations to them. Sometimes, they would be up against tight deadlines and would use Whittamore because he was quicker at finding phone numbers or converting numbers into subscriber addresses.”

It would seem, however, that not all cases were of this nature, as Pritchard adds:

“AfterWhat Price Privacy Now?” appeared, the editor at the time, Roger Alton, said: “Yes, the Observer has used the services of an outside agency in the past, and while there were strong public interest defences for most of those cases, it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criterion. As a result, I have now taken steps to ensure that no inquiries will be made through outside agencies unless I believe that there is a compelling public interest to do so.” John Mulholland, the current editor, confirms that this instruction stands today.”

This case highlights two points: that the culture of blagging had got out of control and was used too frequently and – importantly – that sometimes such methods are necessary to uncover facts which can lead to the publication of a story of significance.

Looking at the examples Pritchard highlights, it would be wrong to argue that blagging should not be allowed in these cases if other (less dodgy) attempts to uncover the information had failed. I would be interested to know more about the stories these transactions helped uncover. If Pritchard’s analysis is correct, these details could form an effective rebuttal to the claims made against the paper.

Journalism is sometimes a dodgy trade and the tactics employed can reflect that – but that’s not the point.

Rather than branding all blagging as beyond the pale, surely it’s better to look at why it is being used in the first place. If there was a legal definition of ‘the public interest’, this may act as a yardstick to help judge such activity (although I’ve never understood why there is so much debate and uncertainty about the term).

But, in the absence of this, there remains a clear distinction (acknowledged by the Information Commissioner) between blagging used to dredge up celebrity tittle tattle and that which can help uncover stories of significance when other attempts to do so have drawn a blank.

This needs to be widely acknowledged if the media is to be reformed for the better.