x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Phone hacking has nothing to do with journalism

It is nearly five years since Clive Goodman, the royal correspondent at the News of the World, the UK's best-selling Sunday newspaper, was first linked to allegations of phone hacking.

It is nearly five years since Clive Goodman, the royal correspondent at the News of the World, the UK's best-selling Sunday newspaper, was first linked to allegations of phone hacking. Tittle-tattle brought about his undoing. Royal officials suspected something was amiss when the paper ran a diary story about Prince William pulling a tendon in his knee, something known only by two of his closest aides.

Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator also on the paper's payroll, must have listened to an awful lot of tittle-tattle. I know because my phone was on their list of "screwed" numbers.

At the time I was working as a features writer for the Mail on Sunday, a rival British paper. One Friday afternoon the paper's managing editor called me into his office. Our investigations editor was already there. Apparently the chief reporter had been called in earlier that morning. All three of us had been named in a police investigation into what would later blow up as the phone-hacking scandal. Our phone numbers had appeared on Mulcaire and Goodman's log. We were advised to change the security settings on our phones, and to do so regularly, just in case.

It was a shocking revelation. Personally, I cringed at the inane chatter which these strangers must have been sifting through. Professionally, I was outraged at their sneak-thief method that compromised sources and major stories. It was the latter emotion I felt most keenly. It seemed as clear as day to me that this had nothing to do with journalism. It was cheating. It was industrial espionage, and it was against the law.

Andy Coulson later resigned as the News of the World's editor, though he has always maintained he knew nothing about Mulcaire and Goodman's illicit activities. The following January, Goodman was sentenced by a British court to four months in prison and Mulcaire to six.

That should have been that, but the story has refused to go away in the intervening years. Last week, Coulson resigned for a second time - this time from his role as communications director for the Conservative Party - reigniting the scandal.

But just where does that scandal lie? And who are the people so relentless in their pursuit of justice and the ousting of "guilty" parties? It is difficult to untangle the facts from the flurry of arguments put forward by a number of self-interested parties.

There are the British politicians, eager for a stick with which to beat their opponents. Will they be as motivated to keep the editorial practices of the News of the World high on the political agenda now that Coulson is no longer in government?

Then there are the lawyers, quick to champion the rights of their celebrity clients with calls for new privacy laws and more stringent press guidelines.

There is, however, nothing about this case to suggest a need for new legislation. Goodman and Mulcaire were imprisoned for their actions, after all. Even now, three years later, we have yet to find out all the facts. The police investigation is ongoing, and we don't know who else it may yet bring down. Any clamour for punitive measures, any calls for heads to roll, seems at best pre-emptive, at worst vindictive.

Despite my personal involvement in the case, I took no pleasure in the thought of Goodman and Mulcaire going to prison. I respect the court's decision, and who could defend the crime? Yet the whiff of the witch-hunt that has tended to accompany discussions of this subject is distasteful.

Mr Justice Gross, the presiding judge, was explicit when he passed judgment on Goodman and Mulcaire in 2007.

"This was not a case about press freedom," he said. "It was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy. It was not pushing at the limits, or at the cusp; it was plainly on the wrong side of the line."

Brush away the speculation, the emotive arguments and the rivalries between competing interests, and that legal line remains clearly drawn.