Law breaking in journalism can be in ‘public interest’, says Dowler family’s lawyer

By Mark Lewis | 22 November 2011

There are so many issues to the phone-hacking affair that some lose sight of the scandal that there was initially – a wall of silence over the issue.

Other newspapers preferred not to report on it before the disclosure about the hacking by the News of the World of the mobile telephone of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, after she went missing but before it was known that she had been killed.

The result of these distractions that have arisen from the phone-hacking scandal is that good investigative journalism loses out by the actions of criminal writers and those that turned a blind eye.

“Imagine a journalist who has a story that there has been corruption or illegality… if hacking a phone could confirm this, then surely that would be a good thing”

If one looks at the parallels with the scandal over MPs’ expenses, it is easy to see that the underlying issue for journalism is the ‘public interest’. The MPs’ expenses scandal was exposed after a breach of the law, with some unidentified party apparently taking some data . No one has taken the lesson as being “stealing data is proper.”

No one has said that the illegality that led to the story being reported was worse than what was being exposed. Corrupt MPs who have been prosecuted and sentenced were rightly unveiled.

As the Leveson inquiry into media ethics goes on, people should realise that there were many victims of the phone-hacking scandal: the people whose phones were hacked; the people who worked for the News of the World who were not involved but have lost their jobs; the readers who lost their paper; the honest journalists who are tarnished by the activities of those who broke the law; and, most of all, the population who need the fourth estate to expose the impropriety of the powers that be.

How do we determine what is in the public interest? If that was defined clearly, then we, as a mature democracy, could venture to have public-interest defences in situations such as these.

Imagine a journalist who has a story that there has been corruption or illegality: a politician who lies about a matter that could take us into war; or a court official taking bribes to stop the prosecution of speeding motorists. If hacking a phone could confirm this, then surely that would be a good thing.

However, hacking was, sadly, never done for that type of reason. Celebrity tittle-tattle or intrusions into the grief of victims of crime were the reasons that the law was broken.

If it were in the public interest, then there would be justification for doing it. Define the public interest, and create a public-interest defence.

Mark Lewis is a partner at Taylor Hampton Solicitors, and is acting for Milly Dowler’s family and other telephone-hacking victims.

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