Phone hacking: The case for open reporting?

One of the most startling claims made in Nick Davies’s forensic story about the Milly Dowler phone hacking case came fairly late, in the fifteenth paragraph: “The paper made little effort to conceal the hacking from its readers.”

The article went on to quote a News of the World story from April 14, 2002 relating to a message left on Ms. Dowler’s phone from a recruitment agency, who had received a job inquiry from a woman pretending to be Ms. Dowler.

“It is thought the hoaxer even gave the agency Milly’s real mobile number … the agency used the number to contact Milly when a job vacancy arose and left a message on her voicemail … it was on March 27, six days after Milly went missing, that the employment agency appears to have phoned her mobile.”

The full article can be found here and most readers, including the paper’s allegedly holidaying editor, could be forgiven for believing the source of the entire story was the Police. But in fact, the Guardian alleged, it was the News of the World who went to the police with the original information gleamed from Milly’s voicemail. The article then went on to say the employment agency only “appeared” to have phoned her mobile.

Confusing sources of information is a common habit which, intentionally or not, allows the journalist to ensure a level of doubt about the accuracy of the report, and how it has been reported. This culture of opaque sourcing has provided cover to weak reporting for a long time – witness the reports in American newspapers leading up to the Iraq War. In the case of phone hacking, this culture may have facilitated serious crimes.

The justification for this kind of sourcing has been the undoubted need to protect the anonymity of whistle blowers, and certainly Davies’ granting of anonymity to his sources helped the story come to light. Everyone agrees that sometimes sources need to be anonymous, the debate over how and when is older than phone hacking and won’t end soon but the Reuters guide on the subject gives a valuable insight as to the rules governing much of our foreign and business news.

But the practice of protecting sources has arguably allowed journalists to inject mystery into stories that, whilst it can make for compelling copy, doesn’t need to be there.

Journalists don’t only base stories on anonymous sources – those sources often point to facts, leaks or other ‘data’ which the journalist then uses to substantiate the story. This is especially the case when investigating businesses – including News International, and its parent, News Corporation – who must both hold and submit information on their activities.

Currently this ‘data’ is jealously guarded, an asset held by the journalist or newspaper which allows them to gain an advantage over their competitors. Even such ‘data led’ stories as the Telegraph’s MP’s expenses exclusive or the Wikileaks data releases appear over a period of time with data made public gradually; and they are the exceptions.

It’s only natural that for-profit news organisations, and journalists chasing exclusives, would be reticent about making widely available data which could lead to further scoops. Furthermore seeking and revealing more information than necessary goes against much of the reporter’s training – to sift through data and highlight only that which is important to the reader and to the story.

The Wikileaks solution is to provide a new, independent, institution – between the press and the source, which receives the data, makes it publicly available and in the process allows journalists to follow up on the leads it may or may not provide.

But that solution – whilst effective – risks replacing the role of the journalist as the trusted investigator who hides his sources with the journalist as simply an information collator, carrying out little investigation of his own beyond verifying the facts as provided to him. It also means that the data presented to the public is self-selected not according to any definiton of the public interest, but according to what happens to be leaked, or the whims of the intermediary body. Leaks themselves can be a source of media manipulation.

This is why there may be a role for independently funded investigative work where the research uncovered is not owned by the journalist or the newspaper but instead is made publicly available – possibly through a newspaper’s own website, possibly on a separate site – allowing the work to be accessed and built on by other reporters and independent researchers.

The argument  for this is especially compelling in the case of business reporting. Funds for research into the wider impact of what businesses, including media companies, do are limited and the financial and legal risks of such research are high. Those journalists who do investigate stories such as home lending prior to the financial crisis, or the activities of News International may find parts of the story without being able to piece together the entire picture.

Finally, a successful experiment in transparent, investigative reporting could be a small step to redeeming the reputation of journalism itself by showing, to put it bluntly, that the search for truth does not have to be dirty, secretive or corrupt.

For further reading see the Media Standards Trust’s Transparency Initiative.