Skip to main content

Belmarsh Prison is home to some of Britain's most infamous terrorists and murderers; they were joined this weekend by a man who has recently served as a top official in Prime Minister David Cameron's office and editor of the country's largest-circulation newspaper.

The sentencing on Friday of Andy Coulson, 46, a former News of the World editor and 10 Downing St. communications director, to 18 months on conspiracy charges and four other editors to lesser sentences, was meant to be a cleaning-up of the rot and corruption inside Britain's

tabloid press. But the wider backlash could end up making journalism worse rather than better.

Mr. Coulson's time in prison (which will likely be served, after this weekend, in a less terrifying institution) is unlikely to put an end to the repercussions of the so-called phone-hacking scandal. His acts have helped turn "privacy," an ambiguous concept, into an unassailable virtue.

It began as a matter of simple criminality. Mr. Coulson was running the News of the World in the early 2000s when its editors discovered that it was possible then to listen to almost anyone's cellphone voice-mail messages by dialling their number and pressing a few keys.

With Mr. Coulson's assent, his paper used the practice to get dozens of front-page scoops related to the private lives of actors, politicians and members of the Royal Family. They also bought information from police officials and set up sting operations in bugged hotel rooms; such activities soon became the paper's entire business model.

Those of us who lived in Britain during those years were often tempted to buy the NOTW on Sundays. Some of its scoops were beneficial: It exposed match-fixing in international cricket and unsavoury business relationships between dictatorships and British royals, for example. But many of its stories were mere gossip.

The scandal began when the paper's Royal-Family reporter was caught doing it in 2005; Mr. Coulson claimed he had no knowledge but quit the paper in 2007, only to be hired by then-opposition leader Mr. Cameron, whose Conservatives swept into Downing Street in a coalition government in 2010.

The next year, the wider scandal exploded: It turned out that the News, under Mr. Coulson, had bugged the phones of victims of the July 7, 2005, London Underground bombings, of relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq, and of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and killed.

The NOTW, a profitable paper with four million regular readers, shut its doors in 2011 in an effort to save the reputation of its owner, Rupert Murdoch. The scandal ruined the reputations of a number of police, government and media figures, including Rebekah Brooks, the mercurial close friend of the Prime Minister and former editor of The Sun. She was acquitted last week.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of it. The scandal provoked Mr. Cameron to launch an investigation, the Leveson Inquiry, which quickly expanded its remit far beyond criminal activities by tabloids into the broad and nebulous "culture, practice and ethics of the press."

It was an unfortunate move. The inquiry soon turned into a barrage against all journalistic invasions of privacy. This extended into the sort of practices that, under different circumstances, unveiled spy-agency excesses and exposed the questionable evidence used to launch the Iraq war.

The crucial principle that was forgotten in all the furor is that all good journalism is an invasion of privacy. If it isn't advertising or court stenography, journalism involves the saying of things that someone would rather have kept private.

The inquiry's 2,000-page final report called for a new regulatory agency to monitor and police the media. While its author, Lord Justice Leveson, insisted that this would not be "statutory regulation of the press," it comes awfully close. Under the guise of "protecting privacy," such bodies could well end up stifling important investigations.

Last month saw the launch of a new regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which some of the most respected newspapers have refused to join because its potential for interference is too great (it would have forced them to follow the News of the World's request, in 2011, that papers stop covering the hacking scandal). The worry is that, if this body fails to function, media will be forced to join the government's preferred regulatory body, Impress, which would be governed by a Royal Charter and would issue rulings which would be legally binding -- in short, something very close to state regulation.

It is likely that this new regulatory world will take shape while Mr. Coulson is serving time. He deserves his sentence. But the larger punishment may well be worse than the crime.