Phone hacking, victims and honourable journalists

When I was training to be a journalist I was always impressed by the one lecturer who talked about his time as a News of the World journalist. He was a real character and an old school journo – but I could never imagine him hacking the phones of grieving families. There were lots of stories he had about ending up in compromising positions and doing the ‘making my excuses and leaving’ line. I suppose it was a link to the Fleet Street era of journalism when stories were gained over drinks in bars.

In my first few years as a journalist on a local newspaper I really felt that I could make a difference and help local communities. The whole ethos was to provide what local people wanted and to cover the stories that they would be interested in. Getting an exclusive about some mismanagement by a big institution was something we all wanted to achieve. But reaching that goal would never have involved serious criminal activity.

Approaching victims’ families was always on the basis that they would be able to pay tribute to their loved one. As with most local reporters today, it was always done in a sensitive and supportive way even if sometimes the families really took a dislike to being approached. When I was a young reporter it was always a difficult job to have to go and do the ‘death knocks’ and there was always a fine line between getting the story and become a nuisance to the family. There was a code that I was aware of and always ensured I worked within. The last thing anyone wanted was a Press Complaints Commission investigation.

Despite the moral elements where you tried to help the community, victims and others in the patch you covered, it quickly emerged that there was a darker side to the world of journalism. I clearly remember going for an interview with a news agency when I was asked what I would be prepared to do to get a story, how far would I be prepared to go. It was an uncomfortable moment in the interview, and one where I suddenly found where my boundaries were. This would not allow me to carry out criminal activity to gain some gossip about a celebrity or to interfere with a police investigation. I still felt the best stories are those gained legitimately.

The revelations about alleged activities by News of the World journalists will inevitably feed the mistrust and hatred of journalists. If it is proved, I am sure no-one will try to justify it, but only if you have worked in a newsroom can you really understand the pressure that journalists are put under. The world of news is really cut throat, the race to be the first to the story, to get the exclusive and to have a different angle on events. It is something that never ends, every day is the same and most reporters will have faced the wrath of an annoyed editor or news editor. Believe me that is a very unpleasant place to be.

In the world of 24 hour news and with the evolution of social media, the pressure on newspapers to be leading the way and setting the news agenda is even more intense. I didn’t face the challenges that exist now, but I know first hand the unpleasant situation when an editor demands you take a particular angle on a story, or asks you to do something to get what they want. The pressure was strangely enjoyable but did make you do things that in other situations would not have happened. It is tough for journalists. But don’t misread that as excusing possible criminal activity if it occurred. It is just worth remembering that most journalists are trying to do a good job and should not be tarred with the same brush as anyone who is found to have been carrying out illegal activities including phone hacking.

So when I think back to my lecturer who had worked in the News of the World (I assume he is probably resting in peace as it was many years ago) I am sure he would have been ashamed by the allegations of hacking the phones of victims of crime. His was still an honourable profession to be in – I just hope we don’t lose that in this current media storm.

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