At today’s lecture on phone hacking, attended by all MA students on journalism courses at City, a shocking statistic revealed itself. Asked who would consider phone hacking in order to get a story, what looked like over half the room put up their hands. I was not in this majority. One classmate explained his reasoning: if there is a ‘strong inclination’ leading to someone’s involvement in a story, and phone hacking is the only way to get to the truth, then I’d do it.

Here, lecturer Roy Greenslade picked him up on his phrasing ‘strong inclination’, saying there would certainly need to be more secure evidence than an inclination. But he concluded that “investigation must be proportionate to the story.” I.e. to cite Greenslade’s example, the Telegraph’s purchase of a stolen CD containing MP expenses information was probably a legitimate step in the name of public interest. Clive Goodman’s 487 calls to hack the phone of Prince William’s aide in order to obtain information about his leg injury was not. (This was the story in 2006 that was the beginning of this saga coming to light.)

But this begs two questions, quite apart from the moral, ethical or indeed legal issues which stopped me raising my hand in the lecture: firstly, a reference to my question in an earlier post (here) about whether phone hacking is even journalism. At the very least it is a passive and lazy method of obtaining information for a story. Secondly, I refuse to believe that phone hacking is ever the sole way to discover culpability or story details. If fear of an injunction against the story is what is making hacking look attractive, it seems obvious that therein lies the problem. If that fear is because the story is not in fact of public interest, but purely for circulation boosting, therein lies the answer to any legitimacy questions.

Public interest, though, is undefined. As a teenager trying to piece together the role of journalism, I often stopped to wonder what actually is public interest. And it seems that in fact, the industry doesn’t know either. The Leveson Inquiry is in the process of establishing what it means, but Roy Greenslade said today: that is one of its toughest jobs. And it leads me to wonder, how has the press been functioning for this long when it didn’t even know its parameters? Long live the free British press – but may it be one with a moral code!

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