The fallout for the rest of the press was just beginning. For months before the Goodman scandal broke, Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, had been pushing for tougher penalties for violations of the Data Protection Act, which is designed to safeguard sensitive personal information. Shortly after Goodman was sentenced, the government moved to adopt Thomas’s plan. Now, those who illegally access private data could face up to two years in prison instead of a simple fine. Gorrill says the tougher penalty was the only way to rein in the growing black market on private information.
But many journalists worry that the threat of jail time could hamper serious investigative reporting, especially given the law’s broad scope. Not only does it safeguard sensitive personal records, like bank statements and medical files (particularly in their electronic forms), it also protects more basic information, like unlisted phone numbers and vehicle-registration data. There is a built-in exception for stories that serve the public interest, but reporters have to be reasonably certain beforehand that the information they seek will reveal official misdeeds, a virtual impossibility for investigative journalists, who often dig based on hunches.
The stiffer penalties, mixed with tougher enforcement, have also raised the specter of journalists being forced to reveal sources of sensitive information, even if they are ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. “That thought alone is having a chilling effect, not only on reporting, but on the willingness of whistleblowers to step forward,” says Jeremy Dear, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists.
The Goodman scandal, and other high-profile privacy violations, also prompted a parliamentary committee to launch an investigation of the Press Complaints Commission—an organization set up by newspapers and magazines in 1991 to avoid government regulation. The committee’s final report, released in July, concluded that self-regulation, while flawed, was the only way to avoid “very dangerous” government meddling in matters of press freedom. But committee chairman John Whittingdale also warned that self-regulation “must be seen to be effective if it is to survive.” Right now, its effectiveness is in serious doubt.
The commission’s job is to enforce a written code of practice to ensure reporting is accurate and fair and to guard against unseemly tactics, like the ones Goodman used. Many of the commission’s members—and all of its funding—come from newspapers and magazines, and it has no power to levy fines. Instead, it urges editors to publish corrections or apologies, a system that Stephen Abell, the commission’s assistant director, insists is highly effective. “It’s quick, free for complainants, and can be done in private, without involving lawyers,” he says. “This means our reactions are more nimble.”
But the commission is widely considered to be toothless. “It’s a useless organization,” says Jonathan Coad, who heads litigation at Swan Turton, a London law firm specializing in media issues. “The tabloids ignore it entirely.” Among the chief complaints is that the commission is too timid to crack down on privacy violations in a market where celebrity snaps can sell for more than $500,000 and a single hot scoop can raise newsstand sales by 20,000 copies.
In the wake of the Goodman case, the commission roundly condemned the reporter’s actions and added a ban on “misrepresentation or subterfuge” to its code of conduct. But it ultimately cleared News of the World of any wrongdoing.
Parliament has investigated the commission and its predecessor, the Press Council, on a number of occasions, and issued a stack of reports on the failures to protect privacy through self-regulation. It has also threatened repeatedly to clamp down on privacy violations. After Princess Diana’s death in 1997—which many blame on the paparazzi that chased her car in the moments before it crashed in Paris—the British public’s mood toward the tabloids soured further, and the debate over privacy and the press intensified. To stave off regulation, editors backed a tough new code of conduct that banned harassment and set strict limits for reporting on private lives. But ten years later, nothing much has changed. In fact, with more than a dozen national tabloids competing for a shrinking pool of readers, the competition for scoops is fiercer than ever.
Many journalists and legal experts have come to believe that unless the commission reins in privacy violations, it’s just a matter of time before Parliament or the courts do it for them. In fact, a series of recent rulings on tabloid stories and tell-all books is already forming the basis of a de facto privacy law.