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World of the news

What if we discovered that the voicemails of 26/11 victims were mined for news stories? Would we have recoiled and said that enough is enough? Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Jul 09, 2011 21:36 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

It started all very innocuously with a brief item about an injured knee. News of the World (NoTW) royal editor Clive Goodman had written in his November 6, 2005 column that Prince William had pulled a tendon in his knee while playing a charity football match. In the true tradition of good journalism being full of facts, Goodman stated that the injury had forced William to postpone a mountain rescue course after having seen his father Prince Charles’s personal doctor, adding that he was undergoing physiotherapy “at Cirencester hospital, near his country home Highgrove”.

Nothing remotely Watergate-ish about this revelation. This would have been the equivalent of a news item in one of our celebrity and lifestyle supplements that would be quickly read and forgotten even quicker by the reader sitting on his morning pot. And unlike most ‘news’ about celebrities, Goodman’s revelation was true.

There was only one problem. Very few people knew about the injury and the treatment. This was like Rahul Gandhi telling Digjivaya Singh in private that after all that daal, chapati and buttermilk in Bhatta-Parsaul, he was dying to go to that quiet Thai restaurant which was once in the Lodhi Colony market but is now in Defence Colony. Leaks from Buckingham Palace, like leaks from 12 Tughlak Lane, are very, very improbable. Which is why William began to suspect that the voicemail messages on the mobile phones of his aides were being intercepted.

When this was followed a week later by another Goodman column where he wrote that William was in the process of borrowing television recording equipment from a journalist — the item appearing a week before the journo even met the prince — the police started investigations. To cut a long story short, Goodman and a private investigator he had hired to hack voice messages were charged and jailed. NoTW editor Andy Coulson resigned.

As is wont in the vulture-peck-vulture world of journalism, the Guardian started a series against Rupert Murdoch’s über-tabloid and found that the phone hacking business was pretty much NoTW policy. Victims of the hackings included Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and media and culture minister Tessa Jowell.

NoTW denied these charges. The ‘Prince William’ hackings were, the paper’s management said, the work of a rogue employee. The list of names found hacked, however, grew and parliament was forced to step in for a full-fledged inquiry. By January 2011, the list was so long and the charge of hacking as NoTW policy so strong, that former editor Coulson was forced to resign from his job as Prime Minister David Cameron's spin doctor.

If things were still in the realm of titillation for most readers — and certainly those who bought 2.6 million copies of the paper last Sunday confirmed that they were happily titillated — last week that overwhelmingly turned to disgust as it was revealed and confirmed that phones of the victims who had died in the July 7, 2005 London terrorist bombings and their relatives, and of the murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler, were also plundered for news stories.

If such a thing had happened in India, would a top-selling paper have been forced to shut down? (NoWT’s last edition is out today.) The operative words are ‘such a thing’. If it was simply hacking into the voicemails of Aishwarya Rai or Amar Singh or Ratan Tata and doling out tidbits for consumption, I don’t think anyone except Aishwarya, Amar, Ratan, a few harrumphing letter-writers and fingerwagging media pundits would have really minded.

But what if we discovered that the voicemails of 26/11 victims were mined for news stories? Would we have recoiled and said that enough is enough? When I look at news channels showing an exposé of a couple’s dirty weekend in a Meerut hotel, or a chap being beaten to death by a policeman in Forbesganj in Bihar, I must admit, I can’t say.

But the real question is whether anyone would ever find out — never mind care — that news is being made from hacking voicemails or from other shadowy, illegal forms of information-gathering?

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