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UK phone hacking case sparks press ethics debate

world Updated: Jul 10, 2009 18:52 IST
Keith Weir

After weeks of feasting on stories about British politicians abusing expenses, journalists are finding their own conduct under scrutiny following allegations of phone hacking by a Rupert Murdoch tabloid.

British police said on Thursday they would not reopen investigations into the interception of celebrities' mobile phone voicemails by journalists, despite new allegations against mass-selling Sunday newspaper the News of the World.

But that will not be the end of the matter. Members of parliament, vilified in recent weeks for claiming everything from dog food to moat cleaning at the taxpayers' expense, want to know how rife the practice was.

Public prosecutors said they would review evidence provided by the police in an investigation in 2005 that resulted in the jailing for phone hacking of reporter Clive Goodman, from the News of the World tabloid, part of the Murdoch media stable.

A committee of lawmakers also plans to re-examine the issue and wants to recall Les Hinton, the former chairman of News International, the British newspaper subsidiary of Murodch's News Corp media empire.

"We have invited Hinton to appear before us again to ask whether he wishes to correct, or amplify, his evidence," committee member Paul Farrelly, a former journalist, wrote in the Guardian newspaper on Friday.

Farrelly also said that the committee would look at the action taken by the Press Complaints Commission, the industry's self-regulating body.

The PCC said in a statement that it found the practice of tapping phone messages "deplorable" and would investigate any transgressions of its rules over the past two years.

However, the PCC's powers are basically limited to the ability to name and shame reporters who break its rules.


The Guardian has reported that News International has already paid 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) to settle court cases with three people -- including soccer executive Gordon Taylor -- whose phones were violated.

It reported on Friday that messages from Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and former England striker Alan Shearer had been hacked. Other media reported that prominent figures were considering legal action over the hacking claims.

The News of the World has broken a host of stories, often involving the love lives of celebrities and politicians.

Steven Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster University, said tabloid journalists had been under increasing pressure in recent years to boost dwindling circulation.

"We have probably the most competitive national press, certainly in Europe and possibly in the world," he told Reuters.

"And those newspapers are under intense pressure to stop the decine and they do it primarily by getting major scoops particularly about celebrities.

"How do they go about getting those scoops? They have been doing it by using techniques which are either very dubious or perhaps in some cases illegal. That's the culture and I think this (story) will have an impact on that."

A report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University next week will recommend a more robust definition of public interest to help journalists strike the right balance in their reporting.

Stephen Whittle, the report's author, said reporters must have a suspicion of wrongdoing before they intrude in the private lives of the rich and famous.

"What we're arguing for is that there shouldn't be fishing expeditions. That is the surveillance state gone mad," Whittle told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Kate Holton, editing by Mark Trevelyan)