Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The hacking scandal and the family courts

A few days away from my computer and lo and behold yet another scandal! The corporate ethics (or rather lack of them) of the Murdoch empire are now unravelling in public and the true extent of breaches of privacy are now becoming apparent. The depths to which journalists have stooped are truly shocking. Carl Bernstein (the American journalist who – with Bob Woodward - uncovered the Watergate scandal) has referred to a “semi criminal press” in Britain.

It was a Murdoch paper, The Times, which campaigned so effectively for what is euphemistically referred to as ‘family court transparency’ – allowing the press access to family court proceedings and to make public highly private and sensitive information about children and young people who are the subject of care and other family court proceedings. Back in 2008 Camilla Cavendish argued in The Times that journalists (presumably including News of the World journalists) would act responsibly and would safeguard the anonymity of children and young people and their families (“Family justice: what we can do to protect our children” July 9, 2008). That argument seems to have carried weight with Jack Straw, who, when he became Justice Secretary, reversed his predecessor’s decision not to throw the doors of the family courts open to the hounds of the press and caved in to The Times’ demands. Subsequently there was even talk of allowing journalists to see confidential medical and psychiatric reports submitted in family court proceedings.

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing. Who now would support the idea that people with the kind of morals which allowed them to tap the voicemail of murder victim Milly Dowler (and to delete messages, thereby risking interference with the police enquiry and falsely raising the family’s hopes) should be admitted to courts where the most private and sensitive details of a child’s life are being discussed? But that is what ‘family court transparency’ risks.