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Intrusion brings investigative reporting into disrepute

Media reaction to the threat of jail hanging over Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal reporter, has been equivocal. The routine condemnation, combined with a “but for the grace of god” fear, continues in the first Monday media pages since Goodman and a private detective pleaded guilty to listening into the voice mail the two princes.

Polly Toynbee has been an exception with an absolute and clear condemnation. She wrote in Friday’s Guardian:

By pleading guilty Goodman may go down for a couple of years, but he stopped anything coming out in court…. But the criminal’s fence is also usually arrested for handling stolen goods. Could there be any more obvious case than the publication in broad daylight of the proceeds of this crime?

Yet no inspector has called to feel the collar of Rupert Murdoch [News of the World owner]. The media mogul is not hiding from arrest across the Atlantic, though anyone who has worked for him knows the degree to which he controls all that happens. Not even the offending News of the World editor has felt the hot breath of the law…. The best measure would have been to lock him up – and his owner too.

For those who have not been following the story, Goodman was obtaining royal and celebrity tittle-tattle, including such significant results of his investigative journalism as Prince William consulting a doctor about a knee injury. Goodman is due to appear in court again in January when he could be jailed.

In the Independent’s On the Press column Stephen Glover, former editor of the Independent on Sunday, asks himself: “Why is it that I cannot get very worked up about the case of Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s disgraced sleuth?” Part of his answer is this:

Is it also possible that, while of course in no way defending the practices of Mr Goodman, I am influenced by an old-fashioned belief that journalists partly exist to ferret out important information?

Over at the Guardian, in its equivalent column, Ian Reeves, editor of the Press Gazette until it folded, feel banging-up Goodman would be a “crazy use of one of the few remaining prison cells”. He writes:

Yet if information commissioner Richard Thomas has his way, there would be plenty more hacks following him down the steps into clink. Thomas grabbed the opportunity to reiterate his regular call for prison sentences for journalists who access other people’s personal data. This is a dangerous road to go down if we want to ensure our press remains as free and robust as it needs to be in the face of ever-increasing governmental and corporate information-management. We already have a worrying amount of legislation that hampers legitimate investigative inquiries.

Fear of Goodman’s jailing setting a precedent is behind the equivocation. The differentiation of “in the public interest” and “of interest to the public” is always going to be a tough one. Some cases will always need to be fought in the courts.

But trust in the media now depends on the stables being cleaned: gossip should not hide behind the need for the media to expose corruption.

The real problem is that the investigative reporting techniques used for celeb stories are relatively cheap and the rewards, n terms of maintaining circulation, are substantial. Investigative reporting which exposes corruption is a lengthy and expensive process which is harder to justify especially when months of work may produce nothing.

There is little purpose in sending Goodman to jail which would do little to remove the pressure on reporters to come up with exclusive royal and celeb stories. Those who create the pressures were not in court this time. It they had been, the best solution would have been a big fine — big enough to remove the perception that the paper’s owners benefit from unnecessary intrusion.

David Leigh, the Guardian’s top investigative reporter, who admits to having used some questionable methods, has the most realistic assessment:

Thomas [the information commissioner] says there is a public interest defence available under the Data Protection Act and honest journalists have nothing to fear. We shall have to see about that. Personally, I am resigned to seeing the tabloid cockroaches doused with a spot of legal insecticide. Driven by greedy and cynical proprietors, and making no distinction between gossipy intrusions and genuine public interest investigations, they are bringing our trade into disrepute.

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