Did Murdochs tabloids go too far

Written by Bloomberg | Updated: Jul 15 2009, 04:16am hrs
Simon Thiel & Lindsay Fortado

On March 22, UK tabloid News of the Worlds front-page headline screamed MP has Sex Romp in Commons. Inside was a photo of lawmaker Nigel Griffiths and a woman who wasnt his wife in underwear and black stockings. Griffiths, who acknowledged the story was true, is suing the tabloid owned by Rupert Murdochs News Corp, for obtaining the photos in an extremely underhand way, his lawyer David Price said. My client had a sexual liaison in his office in Parliament, which he photographed, and which was on his computer, and somehow got into the News of the World.

Politicians and celebrities may join Griffith in taking legal action, saying UK tabloids go too far with news-gathering methods in their push to get exclusives and increase circulation. Potential claims might get a boost after the UKs Information Commission said 31 journalists at Murdochs tabloids, News of the World and Sun, acquired information through blagging, or underhand means. The commission said it provided the information for a 2008 lawsuit, showing the practice was more widespread than thought in 2007, when News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and a private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for intercepting phone messages left for members of Prince Charles staff. The commissions statement followed a report in The Guardian alleging that News of the World, the UKs best- selling Sunday newspaper, systematically used private detectives to hack into cell phones of public figures to obtain personal information.

News Corp denied allegations that News of the World journalists systematically accessed voicemails or employed private investigators to do so. News Corp executives will still face questions this week from a Parliamentary Committee, which said it plans to hold hearings on the issues raised by the Guardian. The hearings may touch on the role of Andy Coulson, formerly deputy editor and then editor of the News of the World and now the press chief of David Cameron, leader of the UKs opposition Conservative Party. He has denied any wrongdoing.

For Adrian Monck, head of the journalism department at City University in London, the attempt by tabloid journalists to obtain personal information illegally is no surprise. The intense competition between quite a few publications in a rather small market obviously increases the pressure to produce exclusive, newspaper-selling stories... Theres a merciless fight for scoops and journalists sometimes overstep the boundaries.

Murdoch journalists werent the only ones to use illegal means for obtaining scoops. The Information Commission said in 2006 that illegal trade in confidential information is rampant in the tabloid world. It said 305 journalists were identified as customers driving the illegal trade in confidential personal information. Of those, 58 worked for the Daily Mail, 50 for the Sunday People, 45 for the Daily Mirror, 33 for the Mail on Sunday and 23 for the News of the World, and 4 for the Observer, the Guardians sister publication.

This is not a new problem, Monck said. Journalists always have used all kinds of means to get secret information. A hundred years ago, journalists tried to intercept telegrams. Nowadays, they try to intercept phone calls and e-mails.