For all the tankers of ink that have been spilt analysing Rupert Murdoch’s recent travails, nobody has seen fit to mention the dark irony at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal. Which is that the same law that has been used to punish News of the World journalists for listening to people’s voicemails gives the British state carte blanche to listen to people’s voicemails. And to intercept our post, access our text messages, invade our email inboxes, peruse our internet history, follow us through the streets and spy on us with night-vision goggles.
So maybe Mark Latham would like to rethink his premature speculation in last week’s Spectator Australia, where he giddily claimed that ‘the phone- hacking arrests are a victory for personal liberty, for the freedom of the individual to make phone calls, to send emails, to engage in the regular communications of the 21st century…’ On the contrary, Mark. The very same law that has brought joy to Murdoch-maulers everywhere for its harrying of Rupert’s rogue hacks institutionalises a disregard for people’s privacy so gobsmacking, so intense, that even the least principled red-top reporter would probably consider it OTT.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was passed by the New Labour government in 2000. It makes it a crime for any British citizen to invade people’s private data, hence its use in the arrest and imprisonment of News of the World hacks who eavesdropped on the voice messages of princes, politicians and pop stars.
Yet this law does not forbid citizens from tapping into other citizens’ private lives out of any deep respect for the right to privacy. Come off it! It was passed by New Labour, a government with such an insatiable urge to spy on us little people that it coated Britain in CCTV cameras, tried its damndest to introduce ID cards, and poked its notoriously long hooter into every aspect of our lives, from how we parent to where we smoke. No, RIPA disallows citizens from spying on other citizens because it is designed to preserve that power of privacy invasion for the state alone.
One of the worst things about the phone-hacking scandal has been the moral rehabilitation of RIPA. The passing of the act in 2000 was greeted with an outpouring of libertarian angst, especially from liberal journalists at newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent. Yet that has now all been airbrushed from history, as those very same ‘liberal’ journalists (their recent behaviour makes those scare quotes necessary) decided overnight that RIPA ain’t so bad after all, especially if it could be used to wipe the grin off Murdoch’s mug. Faced with a choice between challenging alarmingly authoritarian acts of law or making Rupe squirm, British broadsheet hacks will plumb for the latter every time.
How bad is RIPA? Really bad. It codifies the state’s extraordinary powers to rummage around in people’s lives and communications. It grants snooping powers to everyone from the intelligence services to the cops to local council officials — those bespectacled busybodies who, God knows, don’t need much of an excuse to peer into people’s lives, to stalk those whom they believe are getting up to no good and to rifle through our bins for evidence of wrongdoing. (Yes, RIPA has been used by local councils to do those two things: stalk people and dive into dustbins.) RIPA grants the state almost complete access to our private communications.
Under RIPA, state bodies can read our post, listen to our phone calls, demand that ISPs hand over all sorts of information about our online antics, and even de-encrypt any communications which we, foolishly, tried to keep super-private. It doesn’t even have to inform us, either before or after the fact, that it is doing all this poking about. The aim, as a Home Office minister said when the act was passed, is to allow the state to ‘obtain a picture of [a person’s] life, activities and associates’. And tough luck if you fancied keeping your life, activities and associates private.
The reasons that state bodies can give for using RIPA to rip apart our private lives are far too numerous to mention in a short article, but they include everything from protecting national security to preventing crime, from preserving public health to offsetting potential public disorder. These sweeping justifications can be interpreted by officials pretty much as they see fit, as evidenced by the fact that local councils have used RIPA to follow and photograph mums and dads to make sure they really do live close enough to a school to justify sending their kids there. The last time I checked, parents telling little white lies on school application forms was not a threat to national security.
Leaving aside MI5, the Metropolitan Police and all the other big players massively empowered by RIPA, local councils in England have partaken in at least 8,500 instances of Pink Panther-style spying since the act was passed. Last year, an independent analysis of government credit-card spending found that Basildon Council, in Essex in south-east England, spent £1,757 in a shop called Spycatcher: it bought zoom binoculars, night-vision goggles and a GPS tracking device. The promiscuous use of RIPA makes the News of the World’s voicemail- invading antics look distinctly amateurish in comparison.
On what planet can it be considered a ‘victory for personal liberty’ for such a law even to exist, never mind to be used to bang up journalists? In granting the state enormous powers to invade privacy, while denying citizens any powers to invade privacy, RIPA has the effect of incubating the powerful from serious investigation. It allows the state to spy on us, but forbids us from spying on the state. It gives all the powers of subterfuge to Them, and none to Us. The recent RIPA-enabled war against tabloid hacks confirms that privacy has become a privilege, something to be enjoyed by the upper echelons of society but denied to the lower orders. Politicians like Mark Latham, not to mention Britain’s royal family, police forces and celebs, are delighted to see the demise of sabre-rattling tabloids, because those are pretty much the only institutions in society that kept a watchful eye on establishment figures. They don’t care that the state’s machinery for invading the little people’s privacy is not only still intact post- News of the World, but has actually been strengthened, through the rehabilitation and deployment of RIPA.
Contrary to what Latham claims, I don’t actually believe hacks should be free to invade privacy whenever they like. Certainly the vast majority of the News of the World’s phone-hacking was a waste of time and some of it deeply immoral. But journalists must sometimes use subterfuge to get a story. In the 1960s Laurie Manifold, then editor of the British tabloid the People, now known as ‘the father of modern popular journalism’, used bugging and undercover photography to reveal widespread corruption in the police. His tactics would have been technically illegal under RIPA. This law is a disgrace.
Journalists should break it.
Brendan O’Neill is a Visiting Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and editor of Spiked in London.