Journalistic ethics are expendable

Regular readers will know that I have little time for Gordon Brown. Whenever the current British prime minister is given a political kicking, I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. That said, there are limits, even in politics, and the latest media assault on Brown over his sloppily hand-written letter to a dead soldier’s family is beyond the pale.

In recording and publishing a telephone conversation without permission from both parties, popular News International tabloid The Sun has not only violated journalistic ethics, it is in clear breach of the Telecommunications Act.

As a journalist I often record phone interviews. In most cases I do this openly, so that interviewees are aware their exact words are on record, even if they cannot hear the tell-tale electronic blips injected by many software applications. With some interviews, however, it is necessary to tape the conversation without permission from the other party. That is in itself within the law, but the recordings may not be put into the public domain.

In publishing a recording of a conversation between Gordon Brown and bereaved soldier’s mother Jacqui Janes, The Sun chose to flout the Telecommunications Act, and as a result has inflicted severe political damage on Brown, who in all likelihood will not retaliate by calling for a criminal prosecution of News International. If the publisher is taken to court for the violation, it will be done at a later stage by public prosecutors acting independently of government. And News International will take it on the chin.

The irony of the situation is that the owner of The Sun is intent on preventing Internet search engines from indexing News International websites, and wishes to challenge in court the so-called “fair use” legal provisions which allow publishers and individuals to quote openly from copyrighted material. News International will defend to the utmost its intellectual property rights, but seems happy to trample over everyone else’s, including those of our hapless prime minister.