Can phone hacking ever be justified in the public interest?

Can phone hacking ever be justified in the public interest? The Guardian’s investigations editor told the Leveson Inquiry today that in rare cases it could be.

David Leigh said the one occasion he did hack the phone of a businessman was a “minor incident” that seemed “perfectly ethical”. He said, “I don’t hack phones, normally. I’ve never done anything like that since and I’ve never done anything like that before.”

Referring to his admission in a 2006 article, Leigh described that the businessman in question had inadvertently left his PIN on a printout, allowing Leigh to dial straight into his voicemail. In the same article Leigh confessed to “a voyeuristic thrill” in hearing another person’s private messages, but added that, unlike the hacking of phones of members of the royal family carried out at the News of the World by Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, his aim was to expose bribery and corruption, not “witless tittle-tattle.” He added, “unlike the News of the World, I was not paying a private detective to routinely help me with circulation-boosting snippets.”

Leigh also admitted to blagging, having telephoned Mark Thatcher, pretending to be an arms company executive to prove the pair knew each other and had entered into a business deal together. “I give that as an example of when the use of subterfuge is okay,” Leigh said.

Public interest, he said, was the “compass” for journalists, although the boundaries are unclear and judgments on whether to pursue certain stories must be made on a case-by-case basis. When asked about obtaining documents illegally, such as in the case of MPs’ expenses being exposed, Leigh said he believed the “overwhelming” public interest meant the Telegraph was “right to do what it did”.

Leigh went on to highlight the differences between broadsheets and tabloids, arguing that the latter are “incapable of self-regulation.” He said he would be in favour of abolishing the PCC, which he called a “fraud and bogus institution” that works largely to keep the government and royal family off the back of the popular papers.

He argued in favour of punitive damages, which he said would act as a more effective deterrent than Max Mosley’s proposed method of a prior notification system. “Prior restraint,” Leigh said, “is another word for censorship.”

Also speaking today was filmmaker Chris Atkins, who described selling fake celebrity stories to tabloid newspapers. “We called them up, gave them fantastical lies and they wrote them down and published them the next day,” he said, noting one of their most successful, which was featured in the Sun, that claimed Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding was a fan of quantum physics.

Atkins asserted the quote featured in the piece was fake, despite the paper contesting it was from Harding’s PR. Atkins called it a “remarkable coincidence.”

Atkins also described approaching four tabloids with a potential story about celebrity medical secrets, indicating he could provide records. While the Sunday Express deemed it a “legal minefield”, the Sunday People and Sunday Mirror showed interest.

He argued journalists should be disciplined for trying to buy medical records, adding that the Mirror’s reporter in question, Nick Owens, may not have gone on to write a libellous article for the Sun about wrongly arrested Bristol landlord Chris Jefferies had he been punished while at the Mirror.

“Newspapers understand one thing: money,” Atkins said. “The PCC ajudications are as good as meaningless really in terms of correcting mistakes.”

Charlotte Harris, a solicitor for phone hacking victims, was also in the witness box today. She said it was “incredible” and “obstructive” that News International had placed her under surveillance, along with fellow victims’ lawyer Mark Lewis. Farrers, NI’s lawyers, had been suspicious that Lewis and Harris were exchanging confidential information gained from acting for claimants. To then hire a private investigator to survey her, rather than approaching the her firm, Harris said, was the “wrong approach.”

“You shouldn’t have to be suspicious of your opponents in that way,” Harris said, claiming that surveillance “got in the way.”

Also providing evidence was Welsh sales manager Steven Nott, who in 1999 tried to alert the British press and authorities to insecure voicemail systems. Nott said that, during a network outage, Vodafone customer services had told him he could access his own voicemail from another phone by entering a default code. Concerned about the ease of intercepting voicemails, Nott then contacted Oonagh Blackman at the Daily Mirror, who tested the method herself and indicated the story would be published. Nott said he received £100 for the tip, but the story was never printed.

Nott accused the paper of keeping phone hacking methods for their own purposes, adding that Blackman had threatened him with court action if he divulged that he had passed on the information to them.

Alerts he made to the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office and HM Customs and Excise also went unheeded, he said.

The hearing continues on Thursday with evidence from various academics.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson.