Journalism versus privacy laws

The resignation of Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s chief spin doctor, is just another episode in a story that has refused to die.

Despite a failed police investigation, a chronic lack of evidence and the fact that the original phone hacking scandal occurred over three years ago the story has continued to make front page news. It has led to the sacking of Ian Edmondson, Assistant Editor of the News of the World, a fresh round of court cases, and a new police inquiry into the claims that senior editors at the News of the World were aware of the illegal activities of their reporters.

It has been suggested by disgruntled former journalists that phone hacking is endemic across Fleet Street and the Guardian has estimated that over 3,000 people were targeted. But what does it all mean and why is it so important?

There are many angles we could take: police incompetence, Cameron’s questionable judgement in hiring Andy Coulson or the implications for Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. But the central issue to emerge from the story is in fact none of these.

Instead the phone hacking scandal threatens the very industry from which it emanated and is bad news for both journalists and the general public. This may be a decisive moment for the media. Opinion is now shifting. People who once championed investigative journalism are beginning to worry that the press have finally overstepped the mark.

One such person is Sir Harold Evans, influential journalist and former editor of the Sunday Times. He is concerned that illegal activity in the tabloid press will not only further blacken the already tarnished name of investigative journalism but also strengthen the argument for tighter privacy laws.

This could be devastating for journalists and hinder much of their efforts to report stories that are of genuine interest to the public. The press have shot themselves in the foot. If new privacy laws are the result of the fresh inquiries, which seems likely, it will severely limit the power of the media. This is particularly true when it comes to reporting on the private lives of public figures.

Tighter privacy laws are something politicians and celebrities have long been crying out for but there is a risk that it will restrict imperative reporting. It could deny reporters the space to unearth provocative news stories. While the loss of illegal tabloid tactics is nothing to lament we must be alert to the real danger a backlash against the freedom of the press would pose to investigative journalism.