Reuters executive discusses U.K. hacking scandal

Stuart Karle discussed the legal issues surrounding last year’s U.K. hacking scandal in a Monday talk.
Stuart Karle discussed the legal issues surrounding last year’s U.K. hacking scandal in a Monday talk. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

In a talk on Monday afternoon, an American businessman tried to set the record straight about last year’s British hacking scandal.

Stuart Karle, Reuters’ news chief operation officer, discussed the legal issues surrounding the infamous hacking scandal in the United Kingdom to a crowd of roughly 20 at the Yale Law School on Monday. In the 2011 debacle, several reporters from the British tabloid News of the World hacked into the voicemails of a murder victim as well as those of celebrities and politicians. Karle said the hacking occurred in part because U.K. laws unintentionally encourage hacking in investigative reporting.

“It only mattered that you got the story right,” he said. “How you got it didn’t matter.”

Karle said that before joining Reuters, he served as a lawyer in London, where he was exposed to lenient British law relating to investigative journalism. For example, he said, a British journalist can win a liability lawsuit by demonstrating that the information obtained proved true. But reporters do not have to explicitly say how they acquired information, he added.

After the 2011 News of the World scandal broke, the British government began a process of thoroughly reviewing its privacy laws, he said, adding that he thinks the United Kingdom will potentially try to regulate the press more extensively following the lawsuit. Still, he said he believes the British government will struggle to regulate the press’s tactics of acquiring information.

Karle also suggested that the British press could regulate itself to prevent more illegal activity, but because most press outlets are having difficulty making money, they do not have enough funds to spend on self-regulation.

In the United States, journalists have weaker incentives to use hacking tactics because the country places a stronger emphasis on honesty as well as fact-based reporting, he said. But even in the United States, he said, newspapers have resorted to hacking to acquire sensitive information. In 1998, two investigative reporters from The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote a story — using information gathered from hacked voicemails — revealing accounts of abused workers and pollutants on Chiquita plantations. Though one reporter was fired, he said, the government did not effectively re-examine the role hacking played in investigative journalism.

Christina Spiesel, a senior research scholar of technology and law at the Law School, said she thinks press outlets should strike a balance between honest reporting methods and providing information to the public.

“We want members of the press to be honorable and not break the law, but to also tell us something interesting or important,” she said.

William New, director and editor in chief of the Switzerland-based publication Intellectual Property Watch, said he believes Karle spoke from a biased American perspective when he criticized the United Kingdom’s approach to reporting.

David Lamb LAW ’13 said that because the United States and the United Kingdom have similar legal systems, changes in U.K. law resulting from the News of the World scandal will impact the “way the U.S. looks at privacy either academically or legally.”

Karle is an adjunct professor at the New York University Law School and a visiting professor at the Colombia Journalism School.

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