Days after a man convicted of downloading Internet child pornography was spared a custodial sentence because Britain’s prisons are over-crowded, the assistant editor of the UK’s largest-selling Sunday tabloid was jailed for illegally intercepting celebrity telephone calls.
In January 2007, Clive Goodman, 48, who specializes in gossip about the royal family for the News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Group, began his four-month sentence. His associate, Glen Mulcaire, 35, a private investigator hired by the newspaper, got 6 months.
Immediately after they were sentenced NoW Editor Andy Coulson announced that he had tendered his resignation weeks earlier. Accepting “ultimate responsibility” for the crimes committed in his paper’s name, Coulson said, “I feel strongly that when the News of the World calls those in public life to account on behalf of its readers, it must have its own house in order.”
Goodman and Mulcaire admitted hacking into the calls of members of the royal household who worked for Prince William, Prince Harry and the Prince of Wales. Their offence under the Criminal Law Act of 1977 surfaced when Goodman ran a story containing information that could only have come from a private conversation between Tom Bradby, then royal reporter with ITV News, and the Princes’ staff. Bradby alerted the police.
The case was handled by the anti-terrorist squad who swooped on the men’s homes and offices. They found a contract between the NoW and Mulcaire guaranteeing his ‘crisis management’ company, The Nine Consultancy, almost $245,000 (Canadian) a year. Mulcaire, who also received over $28,000 from Goodman for phone tapping, had been supplying information to the NoW since 1997. In court, he also admitted to unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages left by Liberal MP Simon Hughes, Australian model Elle Macpherson, the publicist Max Clifford, and several football personalities. Mulcaire used to be a professional football player.
Goodman’s incarceration is all the more ignominious since the last journalists to be jailed in Britain, Brendan Mulholland and Reg Foster, became professional heroes for refusing to reveal their sources to the Vassall Tribunal in 1963 set up to investigate a Soviet spy scandal. Goodman has worked at the NoW since the 1980s, and is reputed to have relied on his ‘contacts’ rather than footwork to supply juicy royal stories for the tabloid.
The case has shone a light on long-known but often-denied techniques used by many newspapers to obtain personal information. In the 15 years since the industry launched the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), supposedly to demonstrate a willingness to clean up its act, hundreds, if not thousands, of ordinary people and ‘celebrities’ have had personal details splattered over intrusive and often inaccurate stories. Many lost relationships, jobs, and even homes after publication of prurient stories based on illicitly obtained information from employers, phone companies, banks or public authorities. None has ever received compensation from erring newspapers but Mulcaire pocketed four times the national average wage for supplying information exclusively to just one newspaper during one year.
His actions are commonplace. In May 2006, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas claimed to have a list of 305 journalists who had obtained information by illegal methods. They were customers of a single private detective (not Mulcaire) who specialized in delivering details of criminal records, telephone accounts and other personal information. No prosecutions followed publication of his report ‘What price privacy?’
Referring to the report at the time Goodman was arrested in August 2006, an editorial in the Guardian newspaper commented: ‘(T)he PCC has until now remained remarkably incurious and unwilling to instigate an inquiry of its own, despite the prima facie evidence against hundreds of journalists.’
The Information Commissioner, by splendid irony a royal appointment, issued a follow-up report ‘What price privacy now?’ in December 2006, providing more detail, but no names. It found that journalists had improperly obtained well over 3,000 separate pieces of personal data. The mid-market tabloid Daily Mail topped the list with 952 items obtained by 58 of its staff, followed by two left of centre tabloids, The People (80 items for 50 journalists), and the Daily Mirror (681 for 45 journalists). Nineteen News of the World staffers purchased 182 items, and four journalists from The Observer, a revered Sunday broadsheet, received 103 items.
Apart from reminding editors that such behaviour is a breach of the industry Code of Practice, the PCC kept its powder dry until Goodman was locked away and his editor had fallen on his sword. It has always tended to give the benefit of the doubt to newspapers when the public complains about underhanded methods used to manufacture sensational stories and it has been criticised by journalists, media commentators, and politicians for its apparent unwillingness to crack down on editors for evident breaches of their own Code.
Although funded by the industry, the PCC insists that it acts independently. However, on the very morning in 1996 that the then PCC Chairman and a senior editor were to be grilled by a committee of MPs about payments to witnesses, the industry announced a tightening of its code to outlaw the practice. This followed a series of notorious revelations, including the discovery that 19 witnesses in the case against mass murderers Fred and Rose West were found to have been offered money by newspapers.
On 1 Feb 2007, the PCC Chairman Sir Christopher Meyer, former British UK ambassador to Washington, announced that he would write to editors about the “reprehensible” practices revealed by the Goodman case.
“The public has a right to know that lessons have been learned from this episode, both at the newspaper and more generally,” he said in a masterly understatement.
“The Commission will consider these industry responses with a view to publishing a review of the current situation, with recommendations for best practice if necessary, in order to prevent a similar situation arising in the future.”
Note the ‘if necessary’. Goodman’s jailing and Coulson’s departure are likely to have a more lasting effect than the half-hearted slap on the wrist issued by the PCC when it bucks up courage and occasionally finds a newspaper at fault.
Giving judgement in the case, Mr. Justice Gross described the men’s behaviour as “sustained criminal conduct” and said, “this case was not about press freedom; it was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy.”
Such behaviour undermines the role and respect that journalists should garner from the public, and it does nothing to dissuade politicians currently intent on limiting disclosures to journalists and the public under the hard-won Freedom of Information Act. If newspapers can afford massive fees to private investigators, how will they argue against paying higher charges for FOI requests? And how should the public now interpret press campaigns to belittle or repeal the Human Rights Act, which upholds the individual’s right to privacy?
Perhaps this sorry saga will encourage editors to invest more in quality investigative journalism and jolt politicians into asking more pointed questions about the management style and commercial priorities of the newspaper industry. No one wants to see the regulator given power to jail or sack editors, but unless the industry owns up to its failings and gets tougher on those who let the public down, news media could find pressure mounting for legislation.
There might be one unexpected happy outcome – an end to Royal honours ‘for services to journalism’. It would be far better if the accolade for editors and journalists who demonstrate that they are willing to put protection of the public good before their own bank balances came instead from readers and colleagues.
MIKE JEMPSON is the co-founder and director of the journalism ethics charity MediaWise. A journalist, author and trainer with over 35 years experience in print, broadcasting and public relations, he has delivered training for journalists and NGOs in over 30 countries on the reporting of children, suicide, health, human rights and diversity issues. He also serves on the NUJ Ethics Council and its Professional Training Committee. He is the longest serving council member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Treasurer of the Exiled Journalists Network, and on the editorial board of the international journal Ethical Space. In 2006 he was appointed Visiting Professor in Media Ethics at the University of Lincoln.