The Goodman affair: Victims of frenzy fed by hi-tech

A desire for stories at almost any cost is what caused the downfall of the 'NoW' two. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

There was a time, not so long ago, when Clive Goodman, dapper in his three-piece suit, monocle in his pocket, dark hair slicked back, would take his place in the bar of The Old Rose public house on The Highway in Wapping on a late Saturday afternoon, and discuss with other elite reporters of The News of the World how they had spent the week compiling the best-selling newspaper in Britain.

In the high-adrenaline atmosphere that invariably marked the publication of another series of agenda-setting scoops, tales of derring-do would be told and, on occasion, briefcases opened to reveal the latest piece of electronic "kit" that had come on the market. The technological revolution that has engulfed the media in the last decade and more has changed not just the way that newspapers, magazines, television and radio programmes are produced and conveyed to their respective audiences. It has transformed the way that content is gathered - and the working practices of those paid to gather it.

This is especially true of the tabloid investigative journalist. Clive Goodman, 49, The News of the World's royal editor, is now residing at Her Majesty's Pleasure, at the start of a four-month sentence handed down on Friday for the offence of conspiring to intercept communications. His editor, Andy Coulson, 39, promptly resigned, the entire affair warranting a mere single column on page 32 of yesterday's News of the World.

In the halcyon times of those celebratory Saturdays in the 1990s, Goodman was one of the best-known journalists in the land, bringing in a series of big stories about the Princess of Wales. These scoops were obtained against a backdrop of the royal family's mistrust of Goodman's employers, Rupert Murdoch's News International, which published in The Sun the "Squidgygate" tapes of intercepted phone conversations between Diana and her friend James Gilbey in August 1992, and five months later the "Camillagate" taped conversation between the Prince of Wales and his future second wife.

Both stories, controversial in the extreme, opened the eyes of journalists to the possibilities of James Bond-style gadgetry in obtaining information, shaping a sense that nothing was beyond the all-seeing eye of the press.

Since then the deployment of electronic equipment to obtain information has taken hold like a forest fire, its dense smoke leaving some journalists confused as to exactly where the line is between right and wrong. "Tell me one editor in Fleet Street who is not culpable in this area, broadsheet or tabloid?" asks one former tabloid editor in the wake of Goodman's incarceration. "Jailing people and editors resigning over it is ludicrous. A situation has arisen from the speed and progress of technology."

He drew a clear distinction between hacking into a person's voicemail messages - the offence which Goodman was jailed for - and "bugging somebody's house". According to a source close to The News of the World, the practice of eavesdropping on private voicemail had become so commonplace that staff were targeting their own colleagues, including Coulson himself.

At one basic level, the use of gadgetry in modern journalism is of necessity. Rare, these days, is the young reporter that is able to take an accurate shorthand note at 120 words per minute. As a consequence the electronic recording device, rather than the pencil and notepad, has become the key tool of the journalist's trade. Wary of increasingly punitive libel settlements handed down by the courts, newspaper legal departments are often anxious that stories are supported wherever possible by taped evidence.

Journalists are armed to tape information but that information is harder to get.

In his Cudlipp lecture last week, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre noted that practices such as obtaining ex-directory phone numbers (a basic of investigative journalism) have been made illegal under the Data Protection Act and that the judiciary is effectively introducing a privacy law by the back door.

Judges, subjected to a name-and-shame campaign by Coulson's sister paper The Sun, have recently been less than sympathetic to attempts by journalists to report the lives of the rich and famous. In the sentencing of Goodman, Bob Satchwell, chairman of the Society of Editors, detects a "sneering" tone and, although he does not condone the reporter's actions, warns that judges must be careful of establishing case law which neuters the press as a whole. "They are expressing their subjective view of newspapers and that's surely not the way these issues should be dealt with," he says

Another former tabloid editor points to the growth of the public relations industry as an additional factor in driving journalists towards more unorthodox means of finding stories. "The PRs and agents have become a lot smarter. You used to get access to the Liz Taylors and Steve McQueens but now it's all utterly controlled. It's so hard to get access that journalists have gone the more undercover route."

Put simply, the business of getting stories that publicists don't want published has become harder. Dramatic declines in circulation, particularly among red-top titles, have forced cuts to budgets and staffing levels, whilst pagination has increased to lure readers back.

By 2005 Clive Goodman had lost his place among The News of the World elite and was feeling "under pressure", according to his barrister. He had become nicknamed, not very originally, the Eternal Flame, because he never went out. Instead he relied on private investigator Glenn "Trigger" Mulcaire, to feed him information by illicit means, funded by £100,000 a year from the News International coffers.

Sources close to the paper say Goodman was not alone and that other reporters have admitted similar practices to police. "It was endemic, people got carried away with it." Coulson, who had four award-laden years in the editor's chair, was given little choice but to leave but will still face questioning by the Press Complaints Commission, investigating the extent of telephone tapping in the industry.

Many newspapers have become dependent on gumshoes. So too have some celebrity magazines, which are increasingly newsy in content and deploy ex-newspaper staff who have brought with them the latest tricks of the trade.

In television, a similar combination of restrictions on access to information, limited budgets and the arrival of new gadgetry, has encouraged a form of investigative journalism that involves hiding a tiny camera in a bag or button-hole, a practice which some members of the public and some judges would find as objectionable as Goodman's eavesdropping.

According to Bill Hagerty, a former editor of the Sunday People and editor of the British Journalism Review, jailing The News of the World man will limit the earnings of private eyes from journalism but will do little to eliminate snooping from wider British society.

"Will it any way curtail similar illegal activity carried out in the worlds of high finance and big business, or, indeed, by the state - the most notorious privacy invader of them all? I doubt it."

Chequered past is no obstacle to bringing in Myler to steady the ship

Colin Myler, the swiftly-appointed new editor of the News of the World, comes with his own chequered past, having been obliged to fall on his sword as editor of the Sunday Mirror when it caused the collapse of a trial involving footballers Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate in 2001.

Myler comes back to London from America, where he has been executive editor of the New York Post, another title owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. The appointment of a successor from outside of the News of the World's base in Wapping is seen by some as a signal that Mr Murdoch's senior executives wish to see a change in culture at the newspaper, having been deeply concerned by the Goodman affair.

Les Hinton, News International's executive chairman, is an old friend of Myler's, having worked alongside him as a reporter on the Sun early in his career, and will see him as a safe pair of hands. "He has an outstanding record as a newspaper executive," he said.

Myler resigned over the Sunday Mirror's use of an interview that led to the Woodgate and Bowyer trial being aborted, a decision he admitted was a serious error of judgement. He was subsequently chief executive of Super League Europe, the marketing body for rugby league, but was persuaded to return to journalism by Mr Hinton. Myler began his career on a news agency in Southport.

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