Intrusion, part two

Gordon BrownThe Janes family weren’t the only ones to be exposed by The Sun’s attacks on the PM. Gordon Brown was the unwilling subject of an especially unpleasant kind of scrutiny – including having his phone call recorded and republished by The Sun. At the Currybet blog, Martin Belam thinks this is a likely contravention of clause 10 of the PCC code, which forbids the interception of private communications:

I’ve no doubt that the contents of the call were of interest to the public, but it seems to me that one side of the phone call is someone attempting to make an apology for their visual disability causing them to have poor handwriting, in a phone call they had every expectation at the time of being private. It would have been possible for The Sun to report on the conversation without publishing a transcript, and it would certainly have been possible to report on the story without publishing a recording of the call in full on the paper’s website.

Currybet, “PM’s private call published by The Sun, but PCC has no interest in a ‘public interest’ debate”

Belam has taken his concerns to the PCC, and predictably been told that, as he isn’t the prime minister, there’s nothing the PCC can do. I suspect that in any case, as the phone call to Mrs Janes was made in the course of Brown’s public duties as head of government, The Sun could argue that the expectation of privacy doesn’t apply – in the same way it was argued that Alan Duncan’s “on rations” comments were fair game for Heydon Prowse to record and distribute.

But intercepting a phone call to entrap one (sincerely apologetic) party in the conversation is in pretty bad taste – and besides, isn’t it a practice that News International has put behind it? After Nick Davies’ reports for The Guardian earlier this year on the pervasive use of the black arts on the NOTW and Sun, the PCC produced a report this week which assured the public that:

Despite the manner in which the Guardian’s allegations were treated in some quarters – as if they related to current or recent activity – there is no evidence that the practice of phone message tapping is ongoing. The Commission is satisfied that – so far as it is possible to tell – its work aimed at improving the integrity of undercover journalism has played its part in raising standards in this area.

PCC, “PCC report on phone message tapping allegations”

Improving its integrity. Raising its standards. By running a personal apology from one bereaved parent to another on the front page. Well done, The Sun.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

4 thoughts on “Intrusion, part two

  1. Although this is all exactly as awful and stupid as you say, I don’t think the PCC are wrong in their statement above. The PCC are surely defining phone tapping as bugging someone’s phone to intercept all their calls, rather than simply phoning someone up and recording the ensuing conversation – which I think is the case here.

    Also, although Currybet’s heart is in the right place, it makes that same mistake of conflating “in the public interest” with “interesting to the public” – which is exactly the confusion that these prurient tabloid motherfuckers exploit all the time.

  2. I think the italics in the Currybet post are to make the distinction between “interesting to” and “in the interest of”. As far as the privacy issues go – one party taping a phone call possibly without the consent of the other isn’t as outright corrupt as hacking voicemail; but it’s still an intrusion into communications that might have been entered into with an expectation of privacy. It’s not exactly a rousing confirmation of the PCC’s blandishments, is it?

  3. On the recording of telephone conversations, Ofcom sez…

    Can I record telephone conversations on my home phone?

    Yes. The relevant law, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, does not prohibit individuals from recording their own communications provided that the recording is for their own use. Recording or monitoring are only prohibited where some of the contents of the communication – which can be a phone conversation or an e-mail – are made available to a third party, ie someone who was neither the caller or sender nor the intended recipient of the original communication. For further information see the Home Office website where RIPA is posted.

    Do I have to let people know that I intend to record their telephone conversations with me?

    No, provided you are not intending to make the contents of the communication available to a third party. If you are you will need the consent of the person you are recording.

    It’s not only because it’s in contravention of the PCC code, it’s also against the law. There’s no strong argument this is in the public interest, unless you include morbid vulturism as a public interest. But somehow, I’m not sure that’s what was originally intended by the term “public interest”.

    Doesn’t matter if it’s a company in the course of its normal business duties, or the PM in the course of his normal business duties – as anyone who’s ever phoned a call centre will be aware, “We may record this call for training and quality control purposes.”

    And if there’s an argument as to its legality, then forget arguments over legality and just say it was unscrupulous and unnecessary.

  4. I think some of this is better understood if you remember that the Sun and Gordon Brown have fallen out. I think the Sun is absolutely in the wrong here, but its actions are now so irrational that they’re only explicable if you treat them as being essentially driven by frustration, revenge, and love-turned-to-hate. It’s tedious listening to the litany of someone’s former lover’s newly discovered faults. So far, I’ve come across one person who thinks the Sun were in the right, and her argument was essentially, “G Brown’s a stinker, and it’s all his fault that our troops don’t have the armour and weapons they need.” Fair enough points, but not really addressed to the current matter.

    I think this will hurt the Sun, and the Sun being harmed would be a good thing, IMO, but I still want this ‘story’ to go away.

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