Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Hacking through the NOTW knot

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One of the things that’s missing from nearly all the reports into the NOTW phone hacking scandal is that it doesn’t really involve hacking at all, in the sense usually meant by the term. Certainly, it’s nothing like the hacking perpetrated by the likes of online hacker groups such as Anonymous or the now-defunct LulzSec. The use of the word “hacking” usually implies some sort of evil genius, the work of someone who can do things that others can’t. But the actions of the NOTW journalists were nothing like that clever. It wasn’t even clever at all.

Rather than requiring some kind of esoteric knowledge of how phones work, and the ability to do things with them that ordinary people can’t do, all that was necessary for the “hack” to work was for the reporters to obtain the victim’s phone number and be a little bit lucky. They would simply dial the operator’s voicemail line, enter the number and then hope that the victim hadn’t changed the PIN from the default. And, in the majority of cases, the PIN was still set to the default and they were in. Simple, trivial and something that anyone can do.

Of course, the fact that it’s easy doesn’t make it acceptable. Lots of bad things are easy, and many easy bad things – such as this one – are criminal offences.  And even if you think that simply listening to someone’s voicemail is fairly low on the scale of bad things (it is, after all, not much worse than lots of other forms of invasion of privacy which are perfectly legal), I think most people would agree that deleting messages from a murder victim’s voicemail, thus misleading her family and the police into thinking she’s still alive, is a pretty low thing to do.

But what the simplicity of it does mean is that plenty of people know how to do it. I do, and, now that you’ve read this article, so do you. And you can be pretty certain that every investigative journalist worth his salt knows how to do it.

There are a couple of other things it means, too. Firstly, the chances are that it was just one or two rogue journalists at the NOTW who were involved in it is pretty implausible. Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow says as much in his own blog on the subject:

It is no secret amongst those journalists investigating the hacking allegations swirling around News International, that the practice of hacking was not restricted to that stable.

Secondly, it means that any claim by Rebekah Brooks that she was unaware of it during her tenure as editor is equally implausible – anyone in her position would have to know how her staff were obtaining stories. Her only possible defence is the Arnold Rimmer gambit – that she was too incompetent to be guilty. Either way, her position is untenable.

The other interesting thing about this is that it explains the rather schizophrenic way that the rest of the media have covered it. On the one hand, it’s not a story that they particularly want to grow legs – any real investigation is going to turn up cases in their own papers as well as the NOTW, and they’d rather avoid that if possible. But, on the other hand, as long as it’s confined to the NOTW, it’s a perfect opportunity for Murdoch-bashing. If there’s one thing that unites pretty much every other newspaper and broadcaster in the UK, it’s their resentment of Rupert Murdoch’s dominant position in the British media. So it’s understandable if they prefer to gloss over any suggestion that it might go beyond the confines of News Corporation.

It’s a bit less understandable, though, when the same gloss is applied by ostensibly independent commentators and activists. Take this petition from online soapbox 38 Degrees, for example. If they really believe that it’s specifically a Murdoch problem, rather than a tabloid media problem (or possibly not even confined to the tabloids), then they’re as stupid as anyone who thinks Rebekah Brooks has perfectly clean hands. (Incidentally, the number of signatures claimed for the petitions on 38 Degrees is blatantly inflated. It is simply impossible for them to have got the nearly three million they claim for their NHS petition, for example, from the people actually visiting the website. Even the most popular petitions on the old No 10 site didn’t get anywhere near that many. But I digress).

I wrote yesterday that the real damage done by the NOTW scandal (and Johann Hari being exposed as a plagiarist) is to the reputation of the media as a whole. But, in many respects, it’s damage that needs to be done. Because the real scandal is not that a couple of reporters (so far) have been caught breaking the law, or that one columnist (so far) has been found to be a liar, it’s that their respective editors and proprietors never saw it coming or took any action to stop it.

The media needs cleaning up. It needs a new broom of editors and proprietors who pay more than lip service to the concept of ethical journalism. And it needs people to see that it’s an industry-wide problem, not just the preserve of a handful of rotten apples.