Legal loophole could get phone hackers off the hook

Friday 2 December 2011
Bill Lister
Some rogue journalists and private investigators may get away with phone hacking because of a legal loophole, according to a media law specialist speaking at the University of Salford.

In a lecture to journalism students at the University’s MediaCityUK building, Bill Lister, a partner at leading Manchester law firm Pannone, suggested that the law only legislates for interception of personal voicemails before they have been accessed by mobile phone owners. So, technically, eavesdroppers who access other people’s messages after they have heard them are not breaking the law.

The anomaly exists within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which allows government agencies to hack phones in the national interest and Mr Lister said that Section 1 of the Act stipulated interception of communication in the course of transmission.

“It appears that it is not a criminal offence to access someone’s voicemail messages after they have been heard by the intended recipient,” he commented.

“There is no case law yet so it still has to be tested. However, lawyers’ interpretation of RIPA is that it legislates only for actual interception – that is to say, getting there first.”

>Mr Lister believes his own mobile may have been hacked after he received a call recently from Operation Weeting, the police inquiry into phone hacking. It stems from negotiations the solicitor was holding by phone with the News of the World, in 2006, on behalf of a client.

Mr Lister told MA Journalism students that he thought the Press Complaints Commission was in its dying days and that, following the Leveson Inquiry, UK newspapers would become regulated by law, in line with broadcast media.