Watching the Detectives

September 9, 2010

There are really only three ways of getting information: look it up, ask someone or steal it. The third option is often referred to by euphemism; yet increasingly the grey areas that used to exist in this regard are gone, even if practitioners are finding that hard to handle.

The current News of the World scandal in the UK – over illegal efforts by journalists to break into the voicemails of public figures, and the failure of the police to investigate it – is a reminder of the reality and prevalence of information obtained by deception, and the problems around it.

Journalists, policemen, spies and investigators all know this, and all engage in all three methods to some extent. All know two dirty secrets: that the first two methods, legal and slightly dull, account for the vast majority of information that they get, despite the mystique surrounding their professions. They demand hard work and diligence. And: what remains, the covert acquisition of information by nefarious means, is far from glamorous, often illegal, unreliable, and not neccessarily worth the risk involved. Yet they often stick with old, trusted techniques, however lazy or dangerous or illegal. Sometimes, they can generate information no other method would, and sometimes that is worth the risk.

It isn’t always illegal to obtain all information by deception; it can’t be, as the statute couldn’t be drawn up that broadly. It is, however, illegal to deceive some people in some ways for some reasons (telling a bank official you are someone else, to get their bank statement or their money for example. But it varies widely and by country. It is hard to prove. And the exceptions are significant.

All four professions tend to believe that they are justified in taking information: the public good justifies it in their minds and indeed often in law. That seems to be one of the main issues with the NoW. It sees itself as a crusader for truth against elites, and so may well not have seen much wrong with cracking the voicemails of the rich and powerful.

Several things are wrong with this. Firstly, the relevant UK law – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – includes no public good defence. Secondly, it is hard to see that all the stories that resulted from phone hacking are in the public good. Most are low gossip. And if you think that the judgement of an elitist, then consider: who judges the public good here?

Another defence: “stealing” is seen as somewhat relative. If I break in to your house and take a necklace, that’s stealing. If you leave your front door open and I pop in and take a look at your diary, is that stealing? If I don’t deprive you of the thing, and don’t break anything to get in? Am I stealing if I overhear your conversation? Find a letter you dropped? Read a document you forgot to delete on a public computer?

Cracking a voicemail involves accessing the system with the right number and knowing the PIN code. The message is still there, and using someone else’s PIN – well, is that illegal?

Yup. The statute is relatively clear. Read the law.

Indeed, much of what used to be routine in the investigative world is indeed now illegal. Getting bank account data and mobile phone bills is illegal, in most developed countries. People go to prison and pay fines. Bribing officials or policemen to get information is also mostly illegal. Getting hold of peoples’ rubbish and using what you find – letters, phone bills – is harder since people have got wise and shred their mail. This encourages people to use quick, cheap, reliable tricks. And they fall in love with these, since they have an air of mystique, secrecy, intrigue.

The world of private detectives, journalists, intelligence officers and so on has turned to electronic information because it’s easy, people are careless, the law isn’t always clear, it’s often hard to prove wrongdoing, and the other avenues are tough.

Each believes they have the right. They work together very closely and the best in each profession respects the others. And each tends to believe that what it does is in the public interest.

That is one of the critical points. What precisely is the public interest? Who defines it? Anyone? The Met? The NoW? The reader? The courts?

The reality of the NoW case is that the paper seems to have been very aggressive in using available techniques against all possible targets, with poor judgement about when and why. It had the resources, the editorial backing and the management space. In this case, however, this wasn’t jusitified from an editorial, legal, or risk management viewpoint and probably wouldn’t even have got them decent stories. Voicemail is a blunt instrument.

The activities of the paper’s investigative journalists are stories of legend: but no-one is talking about clipping the wings of legitimate inquiry. This was low-end stuff, not the undercover work of the paper’s star reporters.

Why wasn’t it thoroughly investigated? Because it would have been hard, because there would have been an attitude of “worse things happen in the jungle,” because none of those charged with investigating will have seen it as wholly their job, because some will have seen it as a victimless crime. The evidence and investigation (despite what the TV leads you to believe) will have been tough to piece together. Who accessed this voicemail? From where? How? And should the police let everyone know they might have been hacked? How would they know?

So – some will see this episode as a serious breach of the law by politically motivated people that felt they could act with impunity and worked in cahoots with the police. Others will regard it as an inevitable product of new challenges around electronic security and privacy. A third group will see it as journalism on the edge (for good or ill).

There is some of all of these, but in the end this was a professional failure at every level. This was poor investigative technique deployed to gather poor stories by lazy journalists who couldn’t be bothered to do real investigative work: develop sources, dig dirt, and get smart.

There’ll be more of this. Corporate, political, commercial interests will play happily with the people that do this work because they love it, and believe it right to expose the private lives of public figures. They always have done and they always will. We should make better laws and police them better, because the existing system doesn’t work. Meawhile. buy a shredder, don’t use email for difficult stuff, and don’t leave voicemails.

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WSJ updates social media rules

May 25, 2009

Staffers at The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday were given a newly compiled list of rules for “professional conduct,” which included a lengthy guide for use of online outlets, noting cautions for activities on social networking sites,” Editor and Publisher reported.

It includes:  “Never misrepresent yourself using a false name when you’re acting on behalf of your Dow Jones publication or service.” And: “Consult your editor before “connecting” to or “friending” any reporting contacts who may need to be treated as confidential sources. Openly “friending” sources is akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex.”


State of the US news media: grim

March 16, 2009

US media is struggling against the twin forces of economic decline and technological advance, says a report today. “Journalism, deluded by its profitability and fearful of technology, let others outside the industry steal chance after chance online. By 2008, the industry had finally begun to get serious. Now the global recession has made that harder.”

The annual study on the State of the American News Media is definitive, with lots of analysis and data. The overall message is of decline and decay. “Newspaper ad revenues have fallen 23% in the last two years. Some papers are in bankruptcy, and others have lost three-quarters of their value.”

“First, the audience migration to the web accelerated substantially in 2008, and even though most of that growth was at traditional news destinations, the financial impact of that was a negative one, according to the report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Traffic to the 50 news websites, for instance, jumped 24%, triple the pace of growth of the year before, but online ad revenue flattened, and in newspapers it declined. Second, the recession hammered advertising and diverted attention away from innovating new revenue sources.”

And yet, as the survey points out, there is more journalism – and there are more readers – than ever before. “The problem facing American journalism is not fundamentally an audience problem or a credibility problem. It is a revenue problem-the decoupling, as we have described it before, of advertising from news.”

It notes a few trends:

  • The growing public debate over how to finance the news industry may well be focusing on the wrong remedies while other ideas go largely unexplored.
  • Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions.
  • On the Web, news organizations are focusing somewhat less on bringing audiences in and more on pushing content out.
  • The concept of partnership, motivated in part by desperation, is becoming a major focus of news investment and it may offer prospects for the financial future of news.
  • Even if cable news does not keep the audience gains of 2008, its rise is accelerating another change-the elevation of the minute-by-minute judgment in political journalism.
  • In its campaign coverage, the press was more reactive and passive and less of an enterprising investigator of the candidates than it once was.

The survey is worth reading if you have even a passing interest in the subject. As Alan Mutter, a respected commentator says, “It is the worst of times for the businesses that traditionally have funded professional journalism but the best of times to be a journalist, so long as you aren’t counting on a job at a media company to pay your bills, raise a family or fund your retirement.”


Legal problems with linking to news

March 15, 2009

Lawyers are great and everything. But you have to keep an eye on them.  Malcom Coles, an internet comentator, found that many news sites had terms and conditions that effectively forbade linking to them.

“It’s fairly standard for any publication to forbid people from copying its material. But some papers have gone so far with their site T&Cs… that you’re not allowed to link to – or even read – their website. Legal departments: can I suggest you review these …” Many newspapers promptly did, removing the bans, which mainly covered linking to stories rather than home pages.

Deep linking used to be a controversial practice (the idea was – link to my front page, so it’s clear you are linking to me, not just hijacking my content). But that seems to have gone by the wayside long ago.


FT sues Blackstone

February 2, 2009

Could be a significant step in the newspaper war for survival: the FT has sued a reader. In this case, it has sued the Blackstone Group for allegedly abusing a login that it let several different users use. This is alleged to be common practice in many subscribers, and in effect would mean most online information providers have been giving the product away. It raises again: what is the value of this stuff and who pays?