Solicitor who fought News of the World makes surprise intervention in Exaro piece

By Mark Watts | 22 November 2011

Phone hacking can be good, says Dowler family’s lawyerPhone hacking to help stand up a story can be justified, according to the lawyer who became the News of the World’s nemesis.

Mark Lewis, the solicitor acting for phone-hacking victims including the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl, makes a remarkable intervention in the fevered debate about Press ethics in a piece for Exaro published today.

In his piece, ‘Phone hacking by journalists can be good,’ Lewis argues that the key test for journalists’ methods is whether they help expose something in the ‘public interest’. This applies, he says, to hacking telephones and other potentially criminal activities by journalists, such as receiving documents that might have been stolen.

His piece for Exaro comes on the eve of the day that he is due to give evidence to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into newspaper practices in the UK.

The prime minister, David Cameron, ordered the inquiry in July, after News International announced the closure of the News of the World over phone hacking. Andy Coulson, a former editor of the red-top tabloid, had already resigned as Cameron’s press secretary in January, blaming coverage of the affair.

Lewis writes: “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, he says that the hacking of mobile telephones by the News of the World, revealed in a series of articles in The Guardian, was not carried out in the public interest.

His words may provide some comfort for David Leigh, the investigations editor of The Guardian, who has been part of the newspaper’s team reporting on the scandal at the News of the World and who has admitted accessing someone’s voicemail while researching a story. Leigh argues that the method was justified in that case.

When Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s former royal editor, pleaded guilty in 2006 for plotting to intercept voicemail messages, Leigh wrote in The Guardian: “I, too, once listened to the mobile phone messages of a corrupt arms company executive: the crime similar to that for which Goodman now faces the prospect of jail.” Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who carried out the hacking for the News of the World, were later jailed for four and six months respectively.

Leigh continued: “There is certainly a voyeuristic thrill in hearing another person’s private messages. But, unlike Goodman, I was not interested in witless tittle-tattle about the royal family. I was looking for evidence of bribery and corruption. And, unlike the News of the World, I was not paying a private detective to routinely help me with circulation-boosting snippets. That is my defence when I try to explain newspaper methods to my current university journalism students, some of whom are rather shocked.

“There are other techniques I have used, along with the rest of Fleet Street. I did not turn up my nose when the notorious ‘Benjy the Binman’ emptied a bag of stinking rubbish on to my carpet. He wanted to show me incriminating statements about Saudi arms deals, which a City law firm had been too idle to shred before putting out on the street for collection.”

The key revelation that finally sunk the News of the World was the report last July that it had hacked the mobile telephone of Milly Dowler, after she went missing but before it was known that she had been killed.

Messages were deleted, giving her family the false hope that she was still alive and picking up her voicemail. News International closed the newspaper within a week of the disclosure, and last month reached a settlement to pay Milly’s family £2 million in compensation and another £1 million to charities chosen by the Dowlers.

Lewis acts for the Dowler family and several other hacking victims who have been suing the News of the World, and three years ago secured the first settlement of such a case, a payout of around £700,000 for Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association.

The newspaper had fought Lewis aggressively while defending the claims. Last year, the newspaper even hired a private detective – an ex-police officer – to carry out surveillance on him and another solicitor, Charlotte Harris.

Mark Watts is Editor-in-Chief of Exaro. He is the author of  ‘The Fleet Street Sewer Rat’, a book published in 2005 that exposed some of the ‘dark arts’ of British newspapers.

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