Winding its slow way through the English courts is a matter with the most serious implications for British press freedom. It involves the tabloid newspaper News of the World and has implications for other publications that rely on gossip, "cheque-book" journalism and ethically questionable means of obtaining information. In early 2005, a private detective hired by News of the World journalists hacked into the telephone of Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor.
Later that year, after a reporter responsible for coverage of the Royal Family published two stories involving Prince William, it became likely that telephone calls made by staff at St James's Palace had been illegally intercepted. The following year, after a number of public figures, including leading politicians, had their telephones hacked, police were called in and arrests made.
The then editor of the News of the World apologised to the Prince of Wales, but far more embarrassing disclosures were made later when the Information Commissioner published a report showing the newspaper had asked a private investigator for similar information on 228 occasions. As a result, a journalist and a private investigator were sent to jail and the editor resigned, and the owner of the News of the World, News International's Rupert Murdoch, denied that illegal tapping of telephones was part of his corporation's culture anywhere in the world. The newspaper paid Mr Taylor (and others) a very large sum in damages. Initial investigations by the police discovered the private detective possessed 91 access codes - suggesting another 91 unwitting potential victims. Recently, the High Court has been told a new investigation, involving 40 detectives, expects to find many more. The latest investigation was prompted by criticism that earlier inquiries had failed to fully explore the extent of the alleged hacking.
The newspaper has settled with large sums to some of its victims who agreed to halt court proceedings, but several proceedings remain and are likely to continue - some 20 civil cases against the newspaper are being brought by notable people and a judge has ruled four others should proceed as test cases to determine how much damages should be paid to future claimants. Three more News of the World employees have been arrested. The newspaper has issued a further public apology and has offered to pay damages to anyone who can prove their telephone was hacked by one of its journalists.
The use of criminal methods to obtain stories is very likely to result in greater legal strictures on British newspapers than have already been applied following the obsessive and intrusive pursuit by the tabloids of the Royal Family, especially the late Princess Diana, and other public figures. The use of such methods by journalists, whether or not under direction from their superiors, is unconscionable, but in this case criticism has also been levelled at the Metropolitan Police, which did not alert all those whose telephones may have been tapped, the Press Complaints Commission, whose "investigation" did not disclose any evidence of illegality, and the Crown Prosecution Services, which did not level every possible charge against News International's staff.
In the past, the tabloids in Britain have defended their methods by claiming subterfuge was essential in the public interest. This has seen, for example, reporters pretending to be other people in order to obtain confessions or embarrassing admissions from prominent individuals, one recent victim being the Duchess of York. The use of intrusive photography has also led to many confrontations with authorities, particularly where members of the Royal Family have been concerned. In this case, there is also open discussion in Britain whether the fear of upsetting the world's most powerful media owner has had a bearing on the unusual lack of determination by police and others to discover the full extent of the activities of the News of the World, which are now said to have involved potentially thousands of victims.
Sufficient has been disclosed to disturb every advocate of a free press, however the scandal now unfolds, because sanctions will be demanded. While they may also be difficult to enforce, given the ability of hackers to gain access to virtually any communication device, the crucial balance maintained in a democracy between the right to privacy of public figures and the right of people to know about their activities is shifting relentlessly towards the former, prompted by cases such as this. Such concerns increase the prospect of the Cameron Government ordering a new inquiry into the affair - one whose recommendations, should they eventuate, will be studied with keen interest by every Western democratic government.