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Press code bans snooping in wake of royal eavesdrop case

Voluntary code strengthened

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The Press Complaints Commission has explicitly banned digital snooping by journalists in a change to its Code of Practice. The move comes in the wake of journalist Clive Goodman's conviction for eavesdropping on royal staff members' phone messages.

Though the PCC said that the code previously banned such activity, it said that in the wake of the case its editors' committee wanted to make the ban explicit. The code is voluntary but adhered to by newspapers which sign up to it. It is enforced by the PCC.

The new Code says that: "The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorized removal of documents, or photographs; or by accessing digitally held private information without consent."

The new insertion is the last phrase about accessing digitally held private information without the consent of the owner, and is targeted at voicemail hacking.

Most electronic eavesdropping on telephone activity is illegal, but the PCC is hoping its code is enforced internally by editors, cutting down on clandestine listening.

Former News of the World royal editor Goodman was jailed after admitting accessing the voicemails of royal employees 487 times in just one eight-month spell. He was jailed for four months for breach of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Also jailed was former footballer turned private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who worked for Goodman and the News of the World on a contract basis.

Another change to the PCC Code in the aftermath of Mulcaire's conviction is designed to ensure that newspapers remain responsible for the activities of contractors as well as staff.

"Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest, and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means," the code states. The phrase including agents and intermediaries has just been added.

"In Clause 10, we felt that, under the spirit of the code, as removal of documents or photographs without consent is already unacceptable, then hacking into computers to obtain such material must also be," said Les Hinton, chairman of the PCC's Code of Practice committee. Hinton is also executive chairman of News International, publisher of the News of the World.

"Similarly, the use of third parties to gain information that would otherwise be protected by the code would also amount to a breach. In both cases, it would be better, for the avoidance of doubt, to state this specifically," he said.

The code has also been changed to reflect the growing trend of user-generated content being posted to newspaper websites. The code now makes it clear that editors are only responsible for content their journalists create and control, not material sent in by readers. It has been amended to apply to "editorial material" only.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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