The phone-tap crisis that rocked Fleet Street
As the royal editor of the 'News of the World' is suspended after being charged with phone-tapping, reporters' methods are called into question as never before. What could be the consequences? We sought expert opinion
Monday 14 August 2006
Bill Hagerty, Editor of the 'British Journalism Review'; former editor of 'The People'
I think this could herald a bit of a crisis for the press generally. The investigation into this sort of press behaviour goes way beyond the News of the World. Lots of newsdesks might be thinking "oops" at the moment.
I haven't been in Fleet Street for years but we were accused of tapping phones at The People. To my immense irritation it still appears in cuttings that The People tapped Antonia de Sancha's phone. It would have been illegal to do that. I was the editor and we didn't do it. But the man who owned the flat did it, and it was not illegal to tap the phone in your own premises. The Sunday Times to my knowledge were tapping people in the Sixties and Seventies from a table in a restaurant on the Gray's Inn Road with a microphone taped under it. What I fail to understand are journalists who claim not to know or believe that this has been going on forever. That's the way it operates. If you really want to look into phone-tapping and privacy and unethical behaviour, people should look at the state before they look at the newspapers.
Of course people use the Royal Family. I don't think anyone thinks any differently. And I think that the Royal Family quite sensibly try to harness the media. Television and radio largely have a public service remit so they can't do the things that newspapers do, which makes what newspapers do all the more important.
Look at the News of the World and look at how many convictions Mazher Mahmood has got that the police would never have brought in - I'm not saying I approve of his scams, but he's a good example of an investigative reporter who's got, I think, 200 convictions. There's nothing wrong with the press being investigated. We do it to government all the time and it's fair enough. Newspapers are supposed to, within the law, investigate, expose corruption and bring down wrongdoing. They're not supposed to sit there pontificating about things. I'm always amazed when people sit there saying, "It's unethical."
David Banks Former editor of the 'Daily Mirror'
I'm going to sound like someone who's telling fibs or an ingénue, but I would never have stood for phone tapping in my day. I hate the thought it might have gone on under my nose and I didn't know. I can't think that James Whitaker, who was the royal man when I was at the Mirror, would have involved himself in that. Although people are saying "it went on in my day", I think they are talking about over the past 10 years. The game has changed and people are becoming slightly more scurrilous.
The person who was said to have been hounded and stalked by the press of course did a fair amount of hounding and stalking of the press herself. That was the late Princess of Wales. I think it was Clive Goodman she used to call late at night to tip him off about her whereabouts. In a way that indicates the tempestuous relationship 'twixt royals and the tabloid media, so I don't really think it's going to be sorely affected. The royals have to be seen to be important to the realm and they have to be covered. That's the way it is. It will go on as before because the royals need the media as much as the media think they need the royals.
I guess I was responsible as an editor for something akin to the phone tap, which was the secret camera. I published the photos of the Princess in the gym, but they were pictures which had been taken by the gym owner off his own back, and then he came to us. So yes, we were culpable in that we carried those photographs and it was sneaky. It was as immoral in a way to carry photographs in that sneaky sense as hacking or phone tapping is - but it wasn't something that the newspaper set out to do.
Eve Pollard, Former editor of the 'Sunday Mirror' and the 'Sunday Express'
Well, when I first arrived at the Sunday Mirror as the women's editor in 1978 the royal reporter was a girl called Audrey Whiting, who was 6 ft 3, and everyone said she had got the job because she could look over the gate into Buckingham Palace. So that tells you what the relationship between the press and the royals was at that time - it was pretty simple, and the stories that we got were through straight-up reporting methods.
With Diana everything changed, as we started seeing increasingly large stories, and interest in the royals increased. But I never, as an editor, saw a story that had been got through wire-taps. Part of that was that the technology just wasn't there. And if it was, I didn't know about it.
I've heard that mobile phones are incredibly easy to hack into. Again, I have no idea why, but if someone wants to listen into a mobile then it is pretty easy to do so. Anybody is perfectly welcome to listen to mine, but I'm not sure they'll hear anything interesting. What that ease of access means, though, is that editors have a conundrum now. While I think that editors are under enormous pressure to produce stories now, and I am very sympathetic to that pressure, I do think that if one is listening into mobile phone conversations there is not much lower you can go. People need to have some sort of private life.
Lady Jodi Cudlipp, Widow of tabloid grandee Hugh Cudlipp
I wasn't surprised by the news. But the News of the World doesn't surprise me whatever it does. It's not the sort of thing I would have done, or my husband either, but it has gone on quite a bit in the past. Various people have eavesdropped on Diana and Charles, and there wasn't any great fuss about that from the royalty as far as I can remember, but then they don't often make a fuss.
I think there's enough bad feeling about the press today that it doesn't help when something like this happens. I think to some extent the tabloids have brought this bad feeling on themselves.
I know my husband thought that, because at a certain memorial service he referred to certain things they did - door-stepping in particular and raking up things about celebrities. I think there's a fear of phone-tapping among some celebrities who don't want it known who they talk to. They'd use a landline if they'd any sense.
Mike Molloy, Former editor of the 'Daily Mirror'
The Goodman case is unbelievable. The way the business has changed is astonishing. We took our orders from [Cecil] King. It was like working for the Church Times. You were fired for intrusion, you were fired if you made up a quote. We were never Press-Councilled when I was editor. That's an extraordinary thing. And we never lost a court case, although that might be because we had a good legal team.
Wire-tapping as a tactic didn't exist when I was editor. I suppose I would have supported wire-tapping in extraordinary circumstances - if we were going to catch a murderer or something - but generally, I would have said no.
I think the crisis facing the tabloids after this story is massive. The thing is, the tabloids are at the sharp end of investigative journalism, seedy as it may be. But all quality papers catch up with what the tabloids are doing by reporting on it, and the hypocrisy is something we have lived with for years.
What this case has shown is that most British people, and fundamentally the English, don't like journalists. The tabloids have been pushing privacy for so long, that, after this case, people will say that it will do them good to get a good kicking. I think it will happen, absolutely. The government who are in power hate the press, too, so there will be no help from that direction. I think the tabloids are in for a very hard time.
Paul Connew, Former editor of the 'Sunday Mirror'
I've been the deputy editor of the News of the World, editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and there certainly wasn't a culture of phone-tapping. Clive Goodman joined the News of the World when I was there and he is a very good royal correspondent with a very good network of royal contacts. I certainly think there is a strong suspicion among politicians and celebrities that there is some sort of epidemic of phone-tapping and surveillance by the media. Those who feel the victims probably exaggerate the extent of it.
This really isn't just about one story, it's about the whole question of technology and the law, and how the media, the state and commercial organisations obtain information about individuals. We need to wait and see before we predict an historic change in media and royal relations from this. Whenever there is a major incident like this it doesn't actually impact on the press. But too many people use the press when it suits them and criticise it when it suits them equally.
Jenni Bond, Former BBC royal correspondent
The royals historically have courted the tabloid editors far more than they have ever courted me. In 14 years of being the royal correspondent for BBC television I was not invited to royal functions. I would stand outside and see Piers Morgan and David Yelland of The Sun go through. They were courted much more assiduously, annoyingly, than we were. I've always thought it a bit of a mystery that those who shit on the royals in the biggest way seem to get the greater access.
I always treated the royal brief as a straightforward royal story, it wasn't something magical or mystical or different. You have to ascertain the facts, make sure they're accurate and get the story out as soon as possible. It is very difficult because it is a very enclosed world. You don't get to talk to the people about whom you're reporting, so direct access like this is gold dust. It isn't, as a BBC journalist, something that would have even crossed my mind, but I think it's possibly fairly unusual in the red top world as well.
To get a news story in this way is simply prying and spying and I don't think anyone would think it was acceptable. I reported on "Squidgygate" and "Camillagate". Whether it was a deliberate hack or not I don't know. I've always thought Clive was a very good journalist and a very sharp operator, who has always been very committed to his story and quite surprisingly accurate.
I've always thought the News of the World was one of the papers worth reading to know what was going on in the world and clearly, if these allegations are true, his sources were even better than I had suspected.
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