Opinion: Lies and invasions of privacy are not justified by the ‘public interest’

(c) Downing Street

Katy Owen – @KatyOwen4

The phone-hacking scandal has escalated enormously over the past week with each day bringing ever more serious allegations so that by Friday news about a News International plot to take over the world probably wouldn’t surprise many.

The latest revelation – broken yesterday by the Guardian – is that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown not only had his phone hacked but that someone pretending to be him accessed his bank account, that another tricked his lawyers into handing over his legal file, and that his son’s private medical records were potentially illegally accessed, all by people from or working in the name of News International newspapers.

In this case it is the Sunday Times and the Sun who are implicated, rendering the closing of the News of the World (NoW) last week far short of a sufficient measure to stem the criticism of News International (if it ever was deemed sufficient). It suggests that the original claim that a ‘rogue reporter’ for the NoW held sole responsibility for any illegal activity was so far from the truth as to be almost laughable.

This latest revelation exposes the sheer lengths that supposedly reputable newspapers are prepared to go to in the hope of landing a story. Let us not get into arguments about ‘press freedom’. Whose freedom was being demonstrated? A criminal’s freedom to pose as the prime minister in order to access his bank information? A newspaper’s freedom to publish a story about a child’s illness, regardless of his family’s desires?

There could be no case for ‘public interest’ here – these were speculative acts of illegal privacy-invasion carried out in the hope of acquiring some interesting or scandalous bit of personal information that could then be bragged about under the title ‘The Sun online – we break news’.

Why were so many who have been speaking up about hacking and other activities in the past few years dismissed as exaggerating by both the police and politicians? This issue goes way beyond a question of newspapers’ behaviour – why didn’t our elected politicians take a stand long ago? Why didn’t the original police investigation analyse Glenn Mulcaire’s files when he was arrested in 2006?

All credit to Ed Miliband for standing up to News International last week. It cannot have been easy when faced with the threat ‘You have made it personal about Rebekah so we will make it personal about you.’ Especially given what we now know about the lengths the organisation is willing to go for political gain.

I only hope that the news that the Government will support the Opposition’s move in the House of Commons to call on Murdoch to drop his BSkyB bid is evidence of a sea change in all political parties’ relations with the media empire. It should now be seriously considered whether News Corporation is ‘fit and proper’ to hold any shares of BSkyB let alone its entirety.

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