'Hackgate' - the story so far

Privacy and digital regulation issues continue to exercise the UK government - and the public. 'Hackgate' has raised questions about how news organisations source their stories. We take a look at the story so far.

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Bringing us up to date

Following the failure of the police to re-open the investigation a number of individuals who suspected their phones had been hacked began legal proceedings, including the actress Sienna Miller.  In January 2011, the Metropolitan Police announced that they would re-open their investigation into phone hacking.  As the investigation developed they confirmed that the scale of the hacking was indeed far wider than previously stated.  In April the News of the World announced it was setting up a compensation fund for all those who had been victims of phone hacking.

Political response

Whilst there continued to be ongoing developments, it was on July 4, with the news that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked, that things went into overdrive.  New developments began emerging on a daily basis.

Dramatically on July 7 News International announced that the 168 year old News of the World would print one final edition and then close. The following day David Cameron announced there would be two separate inquiries, one looking into the hacking scandal, and the other looking into the press in general.

More revelations

The hacking scandal had appeared to be a purely UK affair, but on July 14the FBI announced it was to investigate whether 9/11 victims phones had been hacked, showing its potential to go global.  The following day there was a further blow for Murdoch with the resignation of Rebekah Brooks the CEO of News International.  Further high profile casualties were to follow two days later with the resignation of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, closely followed by Assistant Commissioner John Yates.  He resigned after the threat of suspension was made to him by the Independent Police Complaints Commission over his relationship with another former News of the World journalist, Neil Wallis, who it emerged was being paid by the Metropolitan Police for part-time consultancy work.

The Select Committee

When James and Rupert Murdoch appeared before the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport on July 19, both claimed to have been distant from the day to day activities at News of the World, which accounted for only 1% of their business, and unaware of what was taking place.  It emerged that News International had continued to pay Glenn Mulcaire's legal expenses, although the next day an announcement was made that this was to stop immediately.

Longer term implications

A major question is whether the government will be willing to put privacy laws on a statutory footing?  The fact is though that a statutory Privacy law would not have prevented what has happened, and indeed arguably there were already sufficient legal provisions in place.  The major failure appears to have been in the long standing government acquiescence in allowing disproportionate control of the media in the UK to occur.  But for the true scale of the hacking coming to light this would have undoubtedly continued. 

Only time will tell if we are witnessing the demise of traditional news media, or indeed if, as some commentators are predicting, there will a surge of power swinging back in the direction of politicians. 

Alan McKenna is an Associate Lecturer in the Law School at the University of Kent.  For the last two years he has been a Visiting Lecturer for the Law School at City University, London. He is the author of a (soon to be published) book 'A human right to participate in the Information Society'.

Image courtesy of Soosay via Flickr.

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