A spy for an eye

Should newspapers hire private detectives? Is it legitimate to tap telephones in search of a story?

I ask because these questions have featured in media debates in the UK over the last month. The peg for the discussions was the revelation by The Guardian that some of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers have long paid private investigators to do their snooping for them.
These investigators have also run illegal wire taps on behalf of the papers and have regularly bugged homes, offices and hotel rooms to gain information.

Later revelations have shown that the Murdoch press is not alone in this. Various journalists have come forward to say that this practice has been common since the 1980s and that frequently British tabloids have paid off policemen to obtain information for stories.

Much of this activity has focused on celebrities. A traditional way of tapping a celebrity who is having an extra-marital affair or is a homosexual is to get private investigators to keep tabs on him or her.

The investigators take photos with spy-cam, they place bugs in key locations, they intercept personal e-mails and they tap mobile phones.

Once the paper has evidence that say, celebrity X is a homosexual, then they will approach X directly and confront him with the evidence.

X has two options, he will be told. Either he can come out in the pages of say, The News Of The World (“I am gay and have been forced to lie about it by society”) or The News Of The World will run a story outing X (“The sordid rent-boy lifestyle of TV Star X”), complete with photos and details.

Nine times out of ten, celebrities prefer to go the confessional route. The News Of The World can then claim a scoop and more significantly, the paper never needs to reveal how it obtained the photos and the transcripts that nailed X as a homosexual because he himself has come forward to confess.

Moreover, it now emerges, private investigators hired by British tabloids have also tapped the mobile phones of the royal family. So the famous Camillagate tape where Prince Charles told Camilla Parker Bowles that he wished he could be where her tampon was did not emerge accidentally because some ham picked up the conversation. The Squidgygate tape which had Princess Diana bitching out the royal family to a male admirer was not necessarily part of an operation by M15 (as Diana claimed at the time). It was probably the tabloids and their investigators at work.

Is any of this legit? Is it ethical?

I would say no. First of all, papers should not hire detective agencies. Secondly, they should not tap phones. And thirdly there are important privacy issues at stake here.

But I think it is important to debate the issue because it does have many dimensions. Celebrity journalism is tame in India because there’s no real money in it. If The News Of The World can prove that say, Madonna is having a lesbian affair, then it can make millions from the story. In India, if a film magazine established that say, Rekha was a lesbian, who would care? There would be very little money to be made from that story.

But move beyond the realms of celebrity journalism and it all gets very murky. Suppose a paper tapped Narendra Modi’s phone and recorded him admitting that he know of the Gujarat massacres? Suppose somebody bugged a minister’s office and heard him accepting a bribe.

How would we react? Would we still say that privacy issues were involved? Or would we take the line that we took in the Tehelka case: that if there is no other way then it is okay to violate privacy and to resort to secret cameras?

I don’t know. But it certainly is a slippery slope.

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