Phone Hacking by Guardian reporters: How far does it go?

As we know, the Guardian was in the forefront of the baying hounds of condemnation in its coverage of the News of the World’s telephone hacking scandal.  I have a mental image of Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger in angel’s garb, complete with halo, pointing a judgmental finger at the devil-depicted News of the World

One cannot help but be skeptical about the subtext of the Guardian’s precious, pious and censorious attitude.  After all, this is the newspaper which gave us the lies about the Jenin “massacre” (but see also here and how subsequently the Guardian “almost-but-not-quite” retracted its libel) as well as the abhorrent obituary for Nizar Rayyan, Hamas suicide bomber recruiter.  It is also the newspaper which regularly invites terrorists and their supporters to write for Comment is Free. 

In the light of all this and much more, one can be excused for assuming that, given the appropriate facilitating environment, the Guardian would almost certainly stoop to the depths of the News of the World and then lie through its collective teeth that it had done any such thing.

And indeed it has, as we have seen in the latest revelations about David Leigh’s methods of investigative news gathering.

Of course we have only his word that the telephone messages he hacked into were those of “a corrupt arms company executive” since he does not name the person – they could have been anybody’s messages.   

So far as I know there was no police enquiry, and no arrest resulting from his activities.  Had the hacking really been in the public interest the results of it would almost certainly have made the front pages of every major newspaper, which means that we cannot be sure in whose interests he was acting when he appears to have violated the law.  Although Leigh is quoted as saying, the “privacy cards are stacked in favour of the rich and powerful”, what on earth gives him, or any other Guardian journalists, the right to define what precisely is in “the public interest”, and how to determine when such a serious personal intrusion is warranted?

It therefore gives me considerable satisfaction to note that the Guardian’s chickens may at last be coming home to roost.   

At the very least the Guardian will not remain untouched by the dirt and debris spread by the phone hacking scandals.  Leigh, in the fashion of the arrogant who believe that rules, regulations and societal and professional norms of decency do not apply to them may, like Icarus who flew too near to the sun, have fallen victim to his own hubris.   The skewed sense of ethics which underlies not only Leigh’s activities but also his perception of the morality of his behavior is intriguing and disturbing – though not surprising given that this is, after all, the Guardian. 

Leigh’s actions, and his subsequent boasting about them, mirror the Guardian World-View and its perception of the unswerving rectitude of its own conduct.  Leigh clearly believes that ethical norms do not apply to him and actually seems proud of what he did.

A curious anomaly therefore presents itself: 

Although the Guardian is quoted as saying that the paper “does not authorise and has not authorised phone hacking,” Alan Rusbridger himself is on record as saying that “any intrusions must be authorised at a sufficiently senior level and with appropriate oversight.”

(What precisely does Rusbridger mean by “intrusions”?   Is this Rusbridger dissimulation for voice mail interception or other breaches of privacy?  Was Rusbridger’s statement an admission that there are and have been intrusions, or was it another example of Guardian hubris or a slip of the tongue?).

Did Leigh listen to or “intrude” into private voicemail messages without the knowledge or permission of his seniors or did Rusbridger himself authorise Leigh’s “intrusion”?

I would be willing to bet that the Guardian’s and Leigh’s defence will be based on semantics, and on what exactly might constitute “hacking.”  According to Leigh:

“… The trick was a simple one: the businessman in question had inadvertently left his pin code on a print-out and all that was needed was to dial straight into his voicemail…”

Note that Leigh calls his intrusion into privacy a “trick” rather than anything else, but the whole incident, as Leigh recounts it, should ring warning bells:

If this businessman was indeed corrupt and engaged in shady arms deals, why on earth would he record his telephone pin number anywhere, let alone print it out, “inadvertently” or otherwise where the likes of Leigh could find it?  One would imagine that he would have more of a sense of danger than to do that.

Even assuming that Leigh is not being economical with the actualite, was it ethically sound for Leigh to dial in to the man’s voicemail?   Was it even remotely connected to the “last resort” argument put forward by Leigh, under which hacking or interception could be justified?  Since we do not know who Leigh hacked or intercepted, we cannot know whether he practised what he preached – that it should be done only as a last resort – or whether he merely took an opportunity which presented itself.

If the latter, then Leigh was on a fishing expedition.  He was not looking for specific information, rather he was hoping to find information on the off-chance.   If that were the case, then how would Leigh’s rationale for his conduct have constituted what Ben Riley-Smith, writing on The First Post, calls a “watertight public interest defence”? 

Might Leigh, and ipso facto Rusbridger, be guilty of any crime if Leigh’s boasting has a basis in truth?  I am no lawyer, but the following is intriguing. 

Rusbridger, being the Editor, and Leigh by doing the deed under Rusbridger’s real or imagined “oversight” may have infringed Section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act, 1990.  Of course it may be moot whether voice mail data can be fully comparable to data held on a computer but, nevertheless:

The Section 1 offence “Unauthorised access to computer materials (hacking)” provides that someone is guilty of the offence if:

• he causes a computer to perform any function

(a) with intent to secure access to any program or data held in any computer

(b) or to enable any such access to be secured

• the access he intends to secure, or to enable to be secured, is unauthorised

 I have set out above the difficulties I have with Leigh’s story of how he came by the man’s pin number. Added to that the obvious intent by Leigh to access the other man’s voicemail as evidenced by Leigh’s confession and his actions once he got the pin number, however he got it, and it seems that  many more questions are shopping for answers.

All of which actions, as well as Leigh’s own admission that “…it is hard to keep on the right side of legality on all occasions ….”  point yet again to the essential lack of ethical standards at the Guardian.

Rusbridger’s rag lost its reputation for fair and honest reporting long ago.   It honours the NUJ’s Code of Conduct more in the breach than in the observance.   It has the collective moral reasoning age of a five-year old who believes that an action is wrong only in terms of the punishment it will attract if the wrongdoing is found out, and yet too readily sets itself up as the arbiter of what constitutes moral behaviour of the politicians and others it criticises.  It will be interesting to see what transpires as a result of Leigh’s hubris.

Rusbridger has many questions to answer, among which are:

1.  When does he intend to hold an enquiry into Leigh’s conduct?

2.  Whether (as mentioned above) he gave permission and provided “oversight” for Leigh to intercept voicemail, and if so, why did the Guardian spokeswoman deny that such conduct occurs there?

3.  How widespread is voicemail interception as a method of news-gathering at the Guardian?

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