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Phone hack obsession obscures NotW privacy scandal

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Comment One of the more curious aspects of the ongoing News of the World privacy invasion scandal is the focus on mobile phone hacking accusations, when a far wider range of dubious and downright criminal tactics were allegedly in play at the tabloid newspaper.

Clive Goodman, the NotW's former royal correspondent and Glen Mulcaire, a private detective accomplice, were each jailed for illegal wiretapping of the mobile phones of royal aides and celebrities in January 2007. Mulcaire hacked PIN codes associated with the mobile phone numbers of Royal aides and celebrities to access their voicemail messages, which were then accessed for possible newsworthiness. It seems likely that Mulcaire used social engineering trickery to reset these mobile PINs to a number he could then pass on to unscrupulous journalists, certainly Goodman and perhaps others (either directly or through Goodman).

According to police, Goodman and Mulcaire were engaged in a "sophisticated and wide ranging conspiracy to gather personal data about high profile figures" and phone tapping tactics affected a "much smaller pool of people". Other allegedly criminal tactics used in a muck-raking expedition included obtaining "unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills".

The scandal was reopened last week after The Guardian reported that three public figures whose phones had been illegally tapped received hush-hush payments totalling £1m in legal fees and damages. Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers Association, was paid £700K in damages and legal fees in exchange for dropping a privacy lawsuit. Other targets of the wiretap reportedly included John Prescott.

It's also given many celebrity victims of NotW exposes a chance to grind their axe.

Subsequent extensive media coverage has focused on two strands, to the exclusion of other issues. Firstly there is the issue of whose phones were hacked into, or had their voicemail messages intercepted. Taylor, model Elle Macpherson, Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, publicist Max Clifford, and football agent Sky Andrew were named in the original wiretapping case against Mulcaire and Goodman.

Newspapers, both highbrow and popular, have reported over the last week that football managers Alex Ferguson and Alan Shearer left messages on Taylor's voicemail, so these messages might have been intercepted. Many column inches have also been poured out over whether former deputy prime minister John Prescott was the victim of wiretapping, as he loudly complains, or not, as the police say.

This aspect of the case has presented another perfect opportunity for the UK press to engage in their preoccupation with the lives of celebrities and sportspersons.

The other strand dominating coverage is the more important issue of whether the illegal news gathering tactics were in widespread use at the News of the World and perhaps The Sun, as The Guardian argues, or confined to the Goodman, as News International maintains.

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