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article imageOp-Ed: Ridding the British press of entrapment journalism

By Michael Cosgrove     Nov 9, 2010 in World
The British press has been mired in so many entrapment and phone-hacking scandals over the last few years that if it doesn’t clean up its own act soon, the government, Europe and the law may be forced to intervene.
British PM David Cameron must have been extremely displeased to learn recently that his communications director, Andy Coulson, has been interviewed by police following allegations contained in a Channel 4 TV program concerning Coulson’s activities during his time as editor of best-selling British Sunday paper the News of the World. A former News of the World journalist claimed during the program that Coulson, as editor, was fully aware of the widespread use of phone-hacking by the paper.
These are serious allegations. The News of the World phone hacking affair began as a result of the paper gaining illegal access to phone messages contained in mobile phones belonging to members of the British Royal family and their aides and publishing their findings. The affair broke - see this excellent New York Times article on the subject - and Coulson resigned in 2007, just weeks before Clive Goodman, the paper’s royal correspondent, was jailed for four months and its other protagonists were hauled before the courts.
Subsequent investigations by both the press and police into the paper’s activities have uncovered a list of some of what are said to be the thousands of victims and the paper has so far paid millions of pounds in out-of-court settlements to victims with more to come. Coulson maintains that he knew nothing about any of the hacks despite the extent to which they were used, but that seems so implausible that it is being widely predicted that his days as a Cameron employee will soon be over.
News of the World abuse of its status as a newspaper should have ended with that severe and punitive warning. But it didn’t, and the list of subsequent affairs beggars belief. Despite the paper’s promises to reform, illegal activities such as hacking and entrapment have continued, and the paper’s highly controversial – some would say hated – investigations editor Mazher Mahmood is said to enjoy just as much freedom of action as he did before.
What the paper is doing shows a total disregard for the law and journalistic ethics. Worse still, this blind obsession with the cheap and sensational will surely lead to outside intervention in the affairs of the entire British press if it continues.
The paper is alleged to have mounted an extremely sophisticated and costly operation, including the setting up of false web sites, to secretly tape conversations between British snooker champion John Higgins and Mahmood, who disguised himself as a money-laden sheik. The tapes reveal efforts by Mahmood to try and persuade Higgins to throw matches, and it was Mahmood who organized the setting up of the websites.
Chelsea and England international John Terry also became a victim of News of the World entrapment when he was approached by two journalists from the paper who claimed to be drug dealers looking to buy cocaine. Although Terry received a six-month suspended sentence as he had agreed to act as a go-between, the sentencing judge also slammed the paper, saying that the affair was "a very, very clear case of entrapment solely to create a newspaper story.” Terry was risking 15 years in jail, all for the sake of making a profit for a newspaper.
More recently, another News of the World entrapment scam snared several Pakistan international cricketers who were allegedly persuaded to participate in an illegal betting coup during Pakistan’s summer tour of England. This affair nearly resulted in the rest of the tour being called off. Some of the players involved were suspended and police are now trying to determine the paper’s exact role in the affair.
The Duchess of York also fell into the trap by apparently agreeing to sell access to ex-husband Prince Andrew to News of the World reporters claiming to be businessmen looking to meet influential people.
Although the News of the World is the biggest offender, it is by no means the only one. The times, unbelievably, has been accused of infiltrating moles into British political parties, the Daily Mirror is accused of mounting a sordid attempt to entrap a female politician in a sex-oriented scam, the Independent is involved in yet another affair, as is the Daily Mail, and even Pink News, Europe’s biggest gay paper, set up the tawdry and secret recording of a senior British politician who the paper said was anti-gay in an effort to smear him.
A selection of the British press
A selection of the British press
Mark Hillary
It would of course be doing the press an injustice to say that all investigative journalism using covert means is wrong. On the contrary, the right of a newspaper to investigate criminal behavior and abuses by politicians, businessmen, sportsmen and others in the public eye is and must remain inviolable.
But recording and filming whilst offering large sums of money and plying people with drink to encourage them to break the law, as was the case in most of the examples above, has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with criminal behavior.
Most of these papers defend themselves using arguments from the ‘press freedom’ and ‘right to know’ catalogues. It won’t wash. The job of the press is to work in the public interest and investigate misdeeds where it finds them, not to create those misdeeds itself in order to sell paper to a shock-horror-scandal-addicted public.
What these papers are doing is to appeal to the basest instincts of jealousy and moral outrage of a certain section of the public which enjoys watching the rich and famous get into trouble, even if that public is too hypocritical to realize that by doing so it is throwing all the standards of moral decency it claims to be defending out of the window for the most abject of sanctimonious and holier-than-thou reasons.
But all that is beside the point. Whatever one may think of entrapment, other events will decide its future, and that of the British press itself. And that future may involve the legal imposition of respect for people’s private lives and the obligation for the press to respect its own standards. Two words embody this possibility. Max Mosley.
Max Mosley is the fiery ex-boss of motor-sport and Formula One racing. He was filmed by a woman acting on behalf of the News of the World who was present during a sado-masochistic evening he spent in the company of five prostitutes and which allegedly used the theme of Nazism. The paper put his picture on its front page and accused him of being involved in a “sick Nazi orgy with five hookers.”
But this time the paper had underestimated its victim’s capacity to fight back. Instead of ruining him, the affair incensed him so much that he took the paper to court for libel and breach of privacy in a media fracas of his own creation which almost outdid that created by the original story. He also claimed substantial damages. He won the case and was awarded £60,000 in an outcome that may well have far-reaching consequences for the press, particularly in light of the fact that other individuals are suing various other British papers for the similar reasons.
Mosley, Princess Caroline of Monaco and others have all approached the European Court of Human Rights to complain about British press methods, and the Court has already adjudged several cases in plaintiffs’ favor based on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and others which concern the right to privacy and freedom of expression in private.
Other cases in Britain have been taken to the House of Lords and won, and several entrapment scandals are due to come up before the courts within this legal context, which is becoming hostile towards perceived press abuses. This tendency is worrying the press because of its implications for press freedom.
But the British press has only itself to blame. Its continuing refusal to discipline itself and put its own house in order despite the flood of proven past errors and condemnations by the courts is obliging both government and Europe to consider the option of doing the job for them.
Press freedom is a fundamental right and even the 'gutter press' has the right to exist, but the British press should realize that it also has the obligation to stop itself slipping through the cracks it has opened up for itself by its abuse of its rights before it either ends up in the sewer or legislation prevents it from doing so.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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