I'm one call away from a phone hacker.
Most journalists who have a reasonable source list also either know someone or they know someone who knows someone they could contact if they wanted to hack into phones, computers, or even a thing as analog but useful as a story subject's garbage.
I've never hired a hack to hack. No one I know personally in this
business has, as easy as it might be. But in the British tabloid world, competition for scandalous scoops is much more cutthroat than it is here. "We are not going to be the only bad dog on the street," Rupert Murdoch warned a rival, according to the New York Times, as his editors did their own snooping about other Fleet street papers allegedly guilty of hacking.
The first phone call Murdoch's News of the World made in 2006 to tap into royals was to a private investigator. "English private eyes are really seen as a step above thugs," well-known San Francisco P.I. and attorney Jack Palladino told me yesterday. "It's just anticipated they're going to go into illegal activities so you can approach them about it."
For the Star, Us and other U.S. celebrity-focused publications, the latest totally unexceptional story about yet another romantic
disappointment for Jennifer Aniston, along with appropriate photos, is more shared among our tabs than fought over.
The best tabloid scoops -- the Enquirer reporting on John Edwards love child or Anthony Weiner's eponymous social media problems -- don't seem to require any illegal activity. Such is the arrogance and ignorance of the heels in those stories.
But I guarantee you most if not all media organizations are now taking a second glance at their ethics, standards and practices policies with the specter of Rupert and his pieface in the backs of their minds.
The Chronicle, like most papers, has a standards and ethics policy, as does parent company Hearst (called a Statement of Professional Principles) that make it clear that iffy activities in pursuit of a story are either not OK or at least need to get seriously vetted straight up the newsroom's food chain.
Although no editor colleagues of mine that I asked said they'd ever actually hack under any circumstances, most conceded they could definitely find the right person to snoop, often a private eye or other security expert. One reporter said he knows a former special forces operator who can get into your phone and computer.
Palladino also suggested a phone lineman, for those harder-to-tap
I knew a former strip club owner turned designer knockoff retailer in the '80s who actually did pay a phone company employee (in cocaine he got from the Hells Angels) to tap his competitors, including some very prominent local attorneys. He also had local and federal law enforcement individuals on his payroll.
Sure, it's doable. But for journalists here, I think there's almost always a difference between what you can do and actually do. Practice is another story. We had our own version of the HP scare case back in 1998 when a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter avoided jail for stealing voicemails from Chiquita Banana only when he testified against his source of the material.
While journalists do sit around and talk with their editors and newsroom attorneys all the time about potential illegal activities we might find ourselves accused of, like trespassing -- the more contemporary and complicated version of a libel claim -- those ongoing conversations are much more about avoiding lawbreaking than escaping the law. Hacking has a more sinister, and patently criminal sheen than a principled First Amendment stand.
In looser days, some great crime journalist might pocket a potential piece of evidence from the scene. But today, rules and self-regulation are a lot tighter.
Years ago, as a criminal justice reporter, I visited one private eye who was even then good at electronic surveillance. But at one point he asked me to close the door and motioned me closer to his desk. "You know what is still the best tool we have as private eyes?" he asked. Then he reached under his desk and pulled out a bag of garbage. Obviously someone else's.
Not long after that, I was covering Ronald Reagan's attempted
assassination, snooping around the Colorado foothill home of assailant John Hinckley's parents. I waited until the TV trucks had gone for the night, then went and grabbed their garbage. I confess. And I didn't ask anyone if it was legal, but I did remember Rolling Stone getting a whole story from Bob Dylan's stolen garbage. In fact, garbage is legally public once you toss it.
Retired and even active duty law enforcement officials have offered to do some possibly questionable things for me. In greyer areas, a court clerk used to let me come in on the late shift and look at files. So there may be a slippery slope here that some of Murdoch's employees completely fell off of the last few years.
But no one I know thinks the salvation of journalism is to break laws.
The real and clear lesson of NOTW: there is no safety zone that
technology can't breach, and no shortage of professional black baggers who can make it happen.
But, in the end, it's garbage.