In the Media

Phone hacking could have public interest defence

PUBLISHED December 7, 2011

Journalists who hack phones when pursuing stories that would clearly be in the public interest could be given legal protection, Lord Justice Leveson has suggested. The judge, who is chairing the inquiry into press standards, said that he would consider whether to recommend to the Director of Public Prosecutions a new guideline that, in special circumstances, breaches of the law should not result in prosecution.

The inquiry heard evidence from David Leigh, investigations executive editor of The Guardian, who admitted in an article in 2006 that he had hacked a phone and felt a ?voyeuristic thrill in hearing another person?s private messages?.

Mr Leigh wrote that, unlike the News of the World, which had hacked phones for ?witless tittle-tattle?, he had been ?looking for evidence of bribery and corruption?.

He told the inquiry that the hacking he had undertaken had been a ?minor incident? which he considered to be ?perfectly ethical?. David Barr, counsel to the inquiry, told Mr Leigh that unlike for breaches of the Data Protection Act, there was no public interest defence for hacking phones.

Lord Justice Leveson said: ?One of the things that I will need to think about is whether to encourage the director to issue a guideline, rather as he has done in relation to assisted suicide, to provide some clothes on the framework of how discretion would be exercised.?

He added that even under the existing law, there were ?back stops? that could protect Mr Leigh from being convicted for phone hacking.

?There is, I hope, at the end of the line a sensible judge who would take a view that even if it is a strict breach of the law and even if there isn?t a public interest defence, then this is not a very egregious problem,? Lord Justice Leveson said.

Mr Leigh declined to give any details when asked by The Times after the hearing when he had hacked the phone and whether or not he had gained his editor?s approval for doing so. He said that he would not hack phones again, even in a similar public interest case, because he now realised that it was a specific offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

Mr Leigh also told the inquiry that he had received information from a man who had obtained it by hunting through people?s bins. He said that he thought that his arrangement with Benjamin Pell, known as ?Benjy the Binman?, was ethical because he had not paid him for the information.

However, Mr Leigh said that he had reached a ?good compromise? whereby he advised Mr Pell to go to The Sunday Times, which ?was less fastidious than me?. Mr Leigh still got to see the information but another newspaper paid for it. He described this as a ?solution to a ticklish ethical problem?.

The inquiry had earlier been told that a file handed to police by News International contained e-mails asking about the price of obtaining information about the children of a lawyer representing phone-hacking victims.

Charlotte Harris, the media lawyer, described seeing documents that revealed how she was put under surveillance by News Group Newspapers, publisher of the NoW. Her children were aged two and four at the time.