Phone Hacking: Does a Pursuit of the Truth Give Journalists the Right?

In light of the Scandal with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, legal experts from the law firm of Carlson & Meissner weigh in on the possible effect this incident will have on laws in the United States.

Clearwater, FL, August 18, 2011 --( Events are finally unfolding to the fullest extent with the English based newspaper, “News of the World,” a company owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. After 168 years, the company has ceased publications on July 10th, 2011 due to a scandal involving the practice of hacking into phones to read voice messages and overhear private conversations. Two sources from the law firm of Carlson, Meissner, Hart & Hayslett explain how this incident may amend state laws regarding modern technology.

According to a New York Times article by Robert Mackey on September 7, 2010, Sean Hoare claimed that former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson encouraged the practice of phone hackings. Hoare went on to explain “that he had played tape recordings of hacked messages for Coulson and that his former boss 'actively encouraged him' to break into the voice-mail accounts of public figures.”

Sparking further outrage came reports that journalists were even hacking into the phones of surviving family members of victims involved in the September 11 attacks on the world trade center and the July 7th suicide bombings in London. William K. Rashbaum of the New York Times, writes that the FBI has officially launched an “inquiry into allegations that News Corp sought to gain access to the phone records of victims in the Sept 11 attacks.”

On the matter of legal statutes, Attorney Robert Vessel with the law firm of Carlson, Meissner, Hart & Hayslett went on to say, “Civil damages for invasion of privacy by phone hacking would have to be determined under the law of the state where the hacking occurred." Vessel goes on further to say, "As phone hacking is a modern phenomenon, most states have no laws governing this act and traditional tort laws would have to be used. No doubt if phone hacking is proved in the case of the 9/11 victims, many states would pass laws providing a civil remedy for the victims of phone hacking.”

One the most controversial allegations to come forth, is the story of Milly Dowler. Dowler was a thirteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered in 2002. As stated in a Guardian article written by Nick Davies and Amelia Hill on July 4th 2011, “phone messages were intercepted and deleted by News of the World journalists in the first few days after Dowler’s disappearance.”

Brandon Cohen at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa Florida stressed the point that the issue of consequences isn’t a constitutional matter, but a matter of civil rights. Cohen goes on to explain, “the only thing an individual can do in regards to a crime committed against them is to sue in the civil court system. For the family members related to the 9/11 victims, they can probably sue for some kind of tortuous violation. But they have to show that there was some kind of damage caused against them. In the case against Milly Dowler however, there I can see an intention of emotional harm with a strong case of receiving a substantial amount of money, due to the fact of deleting messages that could of led to her being saved and may have resulted in her death.”

In a BBC interview held on July 8th, former News of the World editor, Paul McMullan tried to justify his actions stating, “I’ve always tried to write articles in a truthful way, and in what better source of getting the truth, is to listen to someone’s messages.” In the same interview, comedian Steve Coogan attacked McMullan, stating, “You’re not uncovering corruption and bringing down institutions that are inherently corrupt, you’re just trying to find out who’s sleeping with who. It’s about selling papers!”

However, even if phone hacking was used to uncover inherently corrupt institutions, would that still make it all right? Would the ends justify the means, or are even criminals allowed their right to privacy? While it’s questions like these that explain why such a storm won’t dissipate for some time, there is no question about the blatant intrusions committed against the families suffering from tragedies.

Carlson, Meissner, Hart & Hayslett
Mary Ann Bounacos
Law Office helping the injured and defending the accused since 1971 in Personal Injury, Worker's Compensation, Social Security, and Criminal matters.