Wed May 29th, 2013 at 11:05:02 PM EST
Earlier I was reading the Jack of Kent blog on The law and culture of phone hacking which raises some interesting points. He points out that it was not only a failure of the individuals involved, but also a failure of the editorial and management levels of the papers, who were insufficiently risk averse, and also a failure of the legal staff at the papers who failed to appropriately advise both management and staff because they had been left behind by the changes in underlying technology, and had become stranded out on an arm of legal expertise covering libel and defamation, where their jobs had come to need knowledge of technology law.
Personally I think it is a tempting argument, but slightly misses what I think was the real problem. And that is that journalists are generally drawn from too narrow a section of the knowledge base, and so having skills based on journalism and writing we have newspapers produced from a narrow social viewpoint, We just do not have enough scientists or geographers or people with social work or policing skills working as reporters, so we have too few questions asked. The same reasons we get poor medical coverage in the mid market tabloids with their seemingly daily causes of/cures for cancer. Or the pitiful "unbiased" climate change reporting that leads people to think that the science isn't basically settled.
If we see the problem as occurring this way then as the organisations shrink then this is a problem that will only get worse. Fewer journalists mean an ever shrinking width of questions, and that will result in more and more people turning away from newspapers, In a readership death spiral.
To see if I could back either of these views up I went for a trawl amongst the output of the News International tabloids and came across something quite amusing instead.
On 27 September 2004 somebody had a letter published on the Agony Aunt page of the Sun:
I AM terrified that I may have broken the law -all because I was jealous of my husband's lover.
I know her well and I am ashamed to say I used personal details to go into her e-mail account and change her password. She must now be blocked out of it. I know it was stupid -I just didn't think.
So far so average advice column panic. But then Deidre replies:
What you did was technically an offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.
Now unless Deidre is running a legal business on the side to make up for the starvation wages she has no doubt received in the last 30 years from Rupert. You can assume that the first line of text here will have come indirectly from the legal brains in the back office at the Sun. And even then, Editorial will have checked with them. Last thing you want is to be sued because your agony aunt is handing out dodgy legal advice. So unlike the Times lawyer who denied any knowledge of the Computer Misuse Act in front of Lord Leveson, when Mr Brett was being asked to consider the situation that had lead to the blogger Nightjack's identity being revealed
18 I hadn't become -- I was not even aware of the Computer
19 Misuse Act at that stage. All I knew was that clearly
20 illegal accessing of somebody's computer and an email
21 was clearly a breach of some statute which was clearly
22 not acceptable. It was clearly criminal, but it might
23 have a defence.
It appears that the Sun's lawyers were fully aware of the computer misuse act and its implications in accessing peoples email accounts. And perhaps we should take Rupert at his word when he says "if you want to know what I'm thinking, look in the Sun". Does that extend to only thinking breaking the law a "technicality"?
The second sentence of Deidre's reply is however even more revealing:
Chances are she will just phone her provider thinking something is wrong with her account and it will be sorted without getting you involved.
And that is a statement that leaves you with the questions, Who at the Sun knows about the practicalities of hacking email accounts? And what happens afterwards with peoples accounts when you have done it? It isn't just the sort of reply you would get from ringing your companies IT people up, they may know how an account could have its password put back, but without having practically done this several times, in similar circumstances it's not something that could be talked about with confidence to an Agony Aunt with a question. User psychology in these situations is something you can only get to understand through experience, not something that can be plucked out of the air by the guy who repairs your laptop when you've spilled coffee into it.
The other option of course is that News of the World staff were using her as a shoulder to cry on, and admitting everything to the Agony Aunt. A thought that no doubt would have a whole group of former senior staff sweating.
The one lone reporter defence has long since fallen by the wayside. But when even the sister papers Agony Aunt is writing in a way that suggests that knowledge and experience of hacking is more widespread, should we be dumping the "one rogue paper" defence also?