Thursday, August 04, 2011

Writing to MP on an amnesty for phone hacking journalists

To John Penrose MP, Weston super Mare (Con)

Dear John

Many thanks for your email (below) regarding the actions the Government has taken over the phone hacking scandal.

I would like to put to you the suggestion that journalists throughout the UK newspaper amnesty should be offered a time-limited amnesty from criminal prosecution in return for sharing all their knowlege about illegal surveillance practices. The aim is to facilitate the working of the varous inquiries that you have mentioned.

After the amnesty window is closed, any journalist who has not taken advantage of it will be liable to the full penalty of law. It would be open to the newsroom journalists, not to managers and executives who presided over the hacking culture.

The aim is of course to get the full truth, without having to drag reluctant witnesses to the inquiries that have already been set up, and once there, to find that they obscure what they know for fear of incriminating themselves. Without it, many journalists might insist that they have their solicitor in attendance to advise them what questions not to answer.

This would make the process of getting information quicker and therefore less expensive - an important matter in these times of fiscal austerity.

It is clear that there is a widespread culture in our press of phone hacking. Operation Motorman found that the Mail, Mirror and the People were all ahead of the NoTW in the hacking stakes. Even Women's Own does it. (p9 of the What Price Privacy document).

This amnesty proposal is inspired by Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In debating this proposal, the main objection that I have encountered is the punitive response - the desire for them all to go to jail. However, some reports have suggested that more than 300 journalists have been involved in some form of illegal surveillance. The costs of police, court, and prison for this cohort are clearly very substantial, quite apart from the problem of jailing a large section of a highly influential group of workers who will retain the sympathies of many of their colleagues.

Another objection is that it will not address the problem of journalists not wanting to speak out because of the effect on their careers. This is true, but given the regrettable view in the media industry that the practice was "normal", it is unlikely to be seen as a major hurdle to re-employment in and of itself.  The stick-and-carrot nature of the amnesty will override career worries.

I would be grateful to have your own view of the merits of this proposal, and if you feel appropriate, will also be grateful if you would forward it to the minister responsible.

With, as ever, thanks for your work

Richard Lawson

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