26 September 2011

A BBC interview on Friday with Alexander Lebedev gives new oxygen to consideration of the acceptability of UK tabloid journalists’ news gathering activities. A former KGB officer, who became a billionaire  of course may not be the ideal source of ethical guidance…

The enthusiasm of British politicians to pursue malfeasance at the News of the World, equally enthusiastically supported by media owned by News International’s competitors, is at one level, admirable.  All corrupt practices need to be investigated and the instigators exposed. Any involvement by officials is reprehensible. In the NOTW case, there is strong evidence that Metropolitan Police officers were paid for providing confidential information to reporters. This is a breach of trust which ultimately undermines public confidence on which good government depends. But what is the investigative function of the media when government agencies are inactive?

Lebedev – who owns the Independent and the London Evening Standard – was commenting on this function. He concluded that corruption by NOTW was of little significance.  Any corruption in Britain is “beyond comparison” with the situation in his native Russia.  Governments are not going to overcome serious corruption. “Nobody can do that but journalists”.  He said that he had acquired newspapers to “take on” global corruption.  Lebedev suggested that the NOTW activities had a place in the greater picture.  He implied that intercepts of cell phones would not be considered unacceptable if they formed part of exposure by the media, and the undoing, of a corrupt official who had moved to Britain with ill gotten billions.

That may mean that the Independent and the Evening Standard are not constrained by their proprietor in the ways they seek out information that will establish and expose corruption.  Lebedev appears sure that in some cases the end justifies the means.

The recent decision of the New Zealand Supreme Court in the Harmed case,  regarding surveillance in the Urewera ranges seems to have a similar rationale. Do suspected paramilitaries, believed to be engaged in weapon training on private land, have rights to privacy? The Court decided that unlawfully obtained evidence is inadmissible except in the most serious of crimes. But how serious must the threat to public interest be, to justify  State intrusion on the privacy rights of the individual?  And despite the irony, do we condone unlawful activity in those circumstances by the police because of their statutory role to maintain the law, but not by the media because their is not a formal role?