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Crimes in the public interest

By Steven | February 14, 2008

A quick note on recent stouch about the journalist who took a knife and toy gun on a regional flight to demonstrate lax security. (Bonus gossip: it was Jonathan Marshall, who was behind a hideously intrusive celebrity expose website, but has since taken a journalism course and is doing serious work).

I say: give that man a badge.

There are times when journalists commit crimes in the public interest. This, I think, was one. (Other journalists have done the same thing in Britain). I also think it’s in the public interest for journalists to occasionally try to obtain passports and credit cards using fake names to expose how easily it can be done, or likewise gather personal data about people or hack important websites. The receipt of leaks of stolen documents or tapes can also raise criminal issues. Journalists have no special defence if they are prosecuted for these crimes.

Usually, as it happens, they are not prosecuted. Under the prosecution guidelines, the public interest is a factor in deciding whether to charge. And any sentence would probably be adjusted down. But that’s an uneasy truce.

Sure, it’s difficult for the law to carve out exceptions to the criminal law for journalists. And sure, if the law did so, there would be journalists who would abuse their special rights. So the truce may be as good as it gets. But under the incentives of the law,  it would be prudent for journalists not to take these sorts of risks, even though such stories are very valuable to society. I wonder whether the development of some sort of public interest defence may be needed – or even required under the Bill of Rights Act?

Topics: Journalism and criminal law | 45 Comments »

45 Responses to “Crimes in the public interest”

  1. Stanmore23 Says:
    February 15th, 2008 at 6:58 am

    I thought the incident was ridiculous – he knew (or should have known) before he took the flight that nothing was checked. What does he want – to spend hours for every flight? He will want people with red flags walking in front of motor vehicles soon.

  2. christopher mitson Says:
    February 15th, 2008 at 10:03 am

    There is no logic in the suggestion that the “stouch” (sic) over a reporter carrying weapons on to an aircraft was “a crime committed in the public interest”. It’s widely known that neither baggage nor individuals are subjected to security checks on internal flights. The “story” was simply a cheap beat-up. If you want to give the reporter a medal may I suggest the Weekly Shock! Horror! Probe! Award for Piffle in a Sunday newspaper?

  3. Steven Says:
    February 15th, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Fair points. Maybe my other examples are better.

    I did think of noting the argument that we’d just had a graphic demonstration of the absence of security checks in the form of a real crisis, so maybe the story wasn’t quite as significant. But then I thought, well, two days after that incident, right at the time when you’d think airports would be more on guard, Marshall was still able to get those weapons on board.

    I seem to recall Fair Go getting a false passport, even after a number of stories showing that it was happening. I thought it was a terrific story. But perhaps Mr Mitson thinks it was a cheap beat-up?

  4. mr_clarinet Says:
    February 15th, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Actually Steven, they tried and failed. But apparently the public doesn’t remember the details of that story very well. Which rather illustrates Christopher’s point well – this sort of thing contributes rather well to a media beatup, but not so well to reasoned policy formulation.

    I would say this though, to Graeme, Steven and any other person who advocates wilfully comitting crimes in the hope of, in essence, ‘destruct testing’ law enforcement mechanicsms – if this sort of activity is so productive and worthy, why shouldn’t everybody be allowed to do it, not just journalists?

  5. Steven Says:
    February 15th, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    My mistake. Fair Go applied for a driver’s licence to show how easily identity fraud could be committed. They succeeded. (They actually got permission from Des Britten to do it using false documents written out in his name). In the process, though, they committed a crime.

  6. christopher mitson Says:
    February 15th, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Nice try, Steven, but no cigar (unless one is on offer for red herrings or sophistry!). The fake passport story didn’t happen during my tenure as editor of Fair Go so I have no precise knowledge. But I would assume the story was linked to the Government’s assertions about beefed-up security measures, etc. etc. which nabbed the two Israeli secret agents. In which case, the story was clearly very much a major matter of public interest.

    My comment was not a reflection on the occasional need to break the law for a greater good (shall we start with Martin Luther King or go back to Martin Luther?) but a harrumph of outrage that the pathetic and utterly unoriginal story about non-security on internal flights should be thought to be journalistically commendable. It was tosh. Utter tosh.

    Should there be some special defence for journalists in genuine issues of law-breaking in the public interest? Absolutely not.

    For two reasons: firstly in such cases, there is discretion to prosecute. Secondly, what real journo wouldn’t love to have a case like that on his or her CV ? Nearly as good as being jailed on contempt charges for refusing to reveal sources! Sadly, not many of us achieve such fabulous martyrdom to fuel our self-righteous pride.

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