When the whole hacking story first broke, all those years ago, before it was all about Milly Dowler and the McCanns, and Hugh Grant and Alan Partridge, it was about politicians. And for that reason, I must admit, I was somewhat dismissive about it. A bunch of MPs had a grievance about the press, and because they were MPs, it looked like they were going to be able to do something about it. An abuse of power, I thought, they’re only making a fuss because they’re the victims, I thought, and assumed it would die down pretty quickly.
As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The story got bigger and more important, and by the end of it, by now, which is before the end (I hope), I find myself worrying that everyone else is losing interest and soon enough it really will die down before anything is done about it.
The big Leveson-related story of the week is yet more delay to the various Royal Charter proposals, and serious consideration being given to the charter drawn up by the press themselves, which basically amounts to “don’t worry, we’ll sort everything out, you can trust us, guv”. Course we can.
But the more interesting story, to my mind, was this one, in which Ofcom told BSkyB that it was perfectly acceptable for them to hack into the emails of members of the public because, you know, there was a good chance they were crooks.
In case you don’t remember, this was the fake-canoe-suicide-insurance-money couple. Ofcom did say that Sky had strayed close to the boundaries, but apparently they’d been terribly responsible about the whole thing, and that made it all OK.
My favourite passage from the BBC account is this one:
Sky News announced in April 2012 that it had authorised correspondent Gerard Tubb to “access the email of individuals suspected of criminal activity”.
It said the decision to approve such a move was a “finely balanced judgement based on individual circumstances and must always be subjected to the proper editorial controls”.
It had authorised. Sky News had authorised.
Let’s put this in perspective for a moment.
Sky News have more power to investigate crime than the police do.
Sky News can hack your emails just because they think you might be a criminal.
Sky News don’t have to go to a judge or any other judicial authority to hack your emails. They can just authorise it themselves. In order to get a story about some people who had already been arrested in connection with insurance fraud.
In other news, it appears that intelligence services have for some time been hacking huge numbers of emails. Whether you agree with them doing this or not, their stated aim is to prevent terrorist attacks, to prevent loss of life among the citizens it is their duty to protect, and my own guess (given the paucity of successful attempts and the number of intelligence-lead convictions we hear about so often) is that it’s working. There’s a debate to be had about proportionality and whether the invasion of privacy can be or has been abused, certainly, but I think most of us would agree that hacking (by executive authorities) to save lives is preferable to hacking (by commercial organisations) to get a scoop about a possible insurance fraud.
And I can see why Prism, and the associated revelations, have got everyone so wound up. But I’m at a loss as to why no one seems to care about the Darwins.
Because if the possibility that you might have committed an insurance fraud is all it takes for you to become a legitimate target for media spying, then GCHQ and the CIA and MI5 and the NSA have gone about all this the wrong way. All they need to do is club together and buy out Murdoch, and then they’ll be able to bug and hack and spy and shred to their hearts’ content.
And the worst they’ll get is a gentle ticking-off from Ofcom.
If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.