By Richard A. Lee
The scandal has all of the elements of a major news story that merits the extensive coverage. It involves allegations of hacking into the telephone accounts of the British Royal Family, a 13-year old murder victim, family members of individuals killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and a variety of celebrities and politicians. Additional charges have surfaced, alleging that the newspaper obtained information by making payments to law enforcement authorities and through other improper means.
Not surprisingly the allegations have sparked outrage on both sides of the Atlantic – from the public, from lawmakers and even from other media entities. After a series of major advertisers pulled their business from News of the World (and several more threatened to do likewise), the 168-year old newspaper closed. U.S. and British government agencies are conducting investigations, and longtime critics of Murdoch and News Corp are using the scandal to renew their disapproval of his style of journalism.
Hacking into a phone account is illegal and the investigations under way clearly are warranted, but one can’t help but wonder whether there is a double standard being employed here. After all, journalists obtain information in all sorts of manners in order to do their jobs. Obtaining a confidential memo may not be illegal, but if the memo actually was written for public dissemination, it would not have been confidential.
Likewise for confidential sources. How often do we see important information attributed to someone who speaks under the condition of anonymity because he or she is not authorized to speak publicly? Thanks to today’s electronic databases, we can answer this hypothetical question with a real number. A search of the Access World News database shows that the phrase “condition of anonymity” appeared in U.S. newspapers 735 times during a week one-week period this month. Thirty-six of the appearances were in New Jersey publications.