THE BLOG
28/07/2013 18:39 BST | Updated 27/09/2013 06:12 BST

Papers Scale the Height of Hypocrisy

We are asked to believe that while the poor newspapers have been hounded over phone hacking, 'blue-chip companies' of all sorts are getting clean away with paying private investigators to break the law on a vast scale. What is striking about this claim is not the fragmentary evidence on which it is based nor the way it has been overblown in the newspapers (and we will return to those matters soon), but the breathtaking hypocrisy of it all.

Over the past week several national newspapers have inflated a great balloon of speculation about a supposedly suppressed 'hacking' scandal and then worked themselves into a frenzy of indignation that nothing is being done about it.

We are asked to believe that while the poor newspapers have been hounded over phone hacking, 'blue-chip companies' of all sorts are getting clean away with paying private investigators to break the law on a vast scale.

What is striking about this claim is not the fragmentary evidence on which it is based nor the way it has been overblown in the newspapers (and we will return to those matters soon), but the breathtaking hypocrisy of it all.

Almost every accusation that newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Times sling at others can be levelled directly at them - and with far better evidence to back it up. To put it in New Testament terms, while they speculate about motes in the eyes of others, they are shamelessly concealing the planks in their own.

Unnamed banks, telecoms companies, insurers, law firms and individuals, they say, have been commissioning unscrupulous private investigators who hack phones and computers, acquire private data by deception and bribe those who are supposed to protect such data.

It sounds bad, and if solid evidence to confirm it exists or emerges, it would certainly justify public outrage and tough penalties for the perpetrators - indeed tougher penalties than are currently available in law.

In the meantime let us remember the very solid evidence showing that national newspapers commissioned every one of those things, and on an industrial scale, for years and years. Though they harmed many thousands of ordinary people, with rare exceptions the perpetrators have not been named, and to date only one journalist has ever been convicted (of phone hacking).

Such press abuses are a known scandal and not a cooked-up, speculative one, but the papers are not telling you about them. As ever - and providing further proof that they are not fit to regulate themselves on their own terms - the editors and proprietors seek to cover up their own shame while self-righteously trying to point the finger at others.

Their aim, of course, is to divert attention from the outrages that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary, and so persuade us that the Leveson reforms are superfluous. It is not an aim they are likely to achieve since, as this poll vividly demonstrates, the public overwhelmingly distrusts them.

Let's look one by one at the offences supposedly carried out by those unnamed blue-chip companies and assess the involvement of the press in the same activities.

1) Phone hacking. To date no one outside the press has been accused of illegally accessing voicemails, although it would be surprising if it had not happened. But we know that police have so far identified 5,500 possible victims of hacking by the press, of whom 1,000 are 'likely victims'. And where at first they were investigating just one hacking operation, they are now investigating three possible networks,including one at Mirror newspapers.

2) Computer hacking. Newspapers are currently under investigation for this offence, and the Times last year paid £42,500 damages to someone whose emails were hacked by one of its reporters.

3) Obtaining private data by deception. This is known in journalism as blagging and many news organisations, including no fewer than 14 national newspapers, are known to have commissioned private investigators who did this on a vast scale. This 'Motorman' scandal was exposed in 2006 by the Information Commissioner's Office, but of course was very thinly reported by the press. The ICO published on page 9 of this report a league table of newspapers which paid for this activity, almost certainly without having any public interest justification. Top of the list, with 58 of its journalists having commissioned at least 952 transactions, was the Daily Mail. This turned out to be an underestimate, as an investigation by ITV News found that the true total of requests for potentially illegal information by the Mail was 1,700, at a cost of £143,150 (though total payments could have exceeded £400,000). The Mail insists it has done nothing wrong and stubbornly resists the public naming of its 58 journalists.

4) Corrupting officials and others to gain access to information. According to Rupert Murdoch, 'that's been going on a hundred years' in the press. In a leaked tape of an exchange with Sun staff last March, the owner of the Times and the Sun said that the first time he learned of the existence of the law against such actions was 'a couple of weeks ago'.

To repeat: Hacked Off deplores these activities, whoever commits them or commissions them, assuming there is no strong public interest justification. We note that some newspapers are urging the police and politicians to act. We hope that they do indeed act, that their actions reveal a clear picture of the role of the press, as well as of others, in these activities, and that the policy response will apply across the board - with no exemptions for the newspapers.