Surveillance, Journalism and the Dark Art of Phone-Hacking

Journalist ( Esther Vargas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Surveillance. It’s something that makes most of us feel uncomfortable. We shift in our seats, begin looking around the room for otherwise unnoticed cameras, perhaps even gulp a little when we become aware of just how closely we are being watched.

As our world transforms into a greater, more technologically advanced environment, the issue of surveillance and where it lies within our lives is becoming more widespread. But how do our respective professions factor in with this practice? For me personally, surveillance is becoming a pressing issue in the field of journalism.

When you hear the two words paired together, one might begin to conjure up fictitious images of hidden microphones and reporters walking around in trench coats and fedoras. Though I would like to try my best to steer away from a dystopian rant on the matter, it appears that there are many negative connotations surrounding the relationship between the two and very few positive outlooks. From phone tapping scandals to other matters such as the undermining of anonymous sources, surveillance poses a real threat to the very integrity of journalism as we know it.

(My contribution to the context hashtag- Tweet embedded from my Twitter handle @caitlynputt_  18 July 2016)

One of the most infamous examples of surveillance and its place in journalism is highlighted in the News of The World phone-hacking scandal. One of the oldest and most financially stable newspapers of the UK (selling some 2.8m copies every week) News of the World closed its doors in 2011 after the phones of thousands were hacked and voicemails were intercepted spanning over a substantial period of time. Alleged targets from the scandal did not discriminate and included a vast range of individuals from politicians to celebrities, sports people, relatives of deceased UK soldiers and people caught up in the 2005 London bombings. The reputation of a news powerhouse was dissolved instantaneously and the credibility of its affiliates overseas, including Australia, were brought into question over such a blatant breach of privacy.

The two inquiries that followed (The Leveson Inquiry in the UK and The Finkelstein Inquiry in Australia) examined the role of journalism and the ethics surrounding surveillance practices such as phone-hacking. Since the inquiries, many people have argued about who should take responsibility for journalism ethical failings and their accountability on both legal and social grounds (Little 2013, p. 6). The phone-hacking incident is just one example of where surveillance and journalism have intertwined and the ramifications have been significant.

Seguridad journalist ( Esther Vargas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another point to note about the role of surveillance in journalism is the potential threat it poses to protecting the anonymity of sources. In an article published by The Conversation (22 June 2015), the writer notes how an increased surveillance society increases the risk of leaving a trail, especially in the case of investigative stories. On a personal level as an endeavoring journalist, this worries me about the future of protecting our confidants. How much extra precaution should we be taking to ensure our metadata trail is minimal to non-existent? It’s definitely something to think about.

I’ve also linked a short video that summarises the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in more depth for anyone that’s curious to know more.

Feel free to comment your thoughts/reviews below. I’d love to receive feedback from my fellow #ALC205 peers 🙂

Until next week,

– C


Little, J 2013, ‘Ethical Journalism after News of the World’, in J Little (ed.), Journalism ethics and law: stories of media practice, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Victoria, pp. 1-17.