Can the ‘Dark Arts’ Ever Be Justified in Journalism? Discuss, with Reference to the Leveson Inquiry, Press Freedom and Privacy.

(This is an article that was written for my Media, Law & Ethics module at University)

This essay will explore the practice of the ‘dark arts’ in journalism with reference to the Leveson Inquiry, press freedom and privacy. The Leveson Inquiry is a new break through in the world of journalism with a main focus on print journalism and whether a call for a new press regulation is needed. This scandal affected big news stories including murders investigations and the invasion of celebrity’s privacy. Through out this essay, there will be different sources and evidence from books and the Internet to support my argument on how or whether the dark arts can be justified in journalism.

In journalism, the term ‘dark arts’ can be defined as a journalist doing unethical practices of journalism, in order to gain a story or a scoop. These practices include: phone hacking, bribery, secret recording, false identity, breaking the law, betraying friends/family, putting friends/family in danger and putting yourself in danger. However, each of these practices can lead to a great story in journalism. Examples of journalists who have used this practice are: Tessa Mayes who broke the law and worked under a false identity, Ryan Parry who used bogus documents to get a job inside Buckingham palace and Mazher Mahmood who permanently remained under cover to find his stories for ‘The News of the World’ e.g. exposing Lawrence Dallagio for possession of drugs. These and other examples will be explored in more detail in reference as to whether the dark arts can be justified in journalism, later in this essay.

There are both positive and negative arguments on whether the dark arts have resulted in good and honest journalism. However, the Leveson Inquiry has shed an unwanted spotlight on the media posing the question on whether the Press Complaints Commission is not doing its job and that a new media regulation is needed?

A famous quote from Niccolò Machiavelli “The end justifies the means” is one that a number of journalists use as a reassurance that their methods of unethical journalism will result in good journalism.

One great example of a journalist who works with this quote is Joe Casey, a man who spent five weeks undercover as a support worker in a care home in Bristol, filming the cruel staff abusing and torturing those in care.

To some people, Joe can be seen as a liar and an untrustworthy man who went under a false identity to capture a story, however without his lies, those members of staff at Winterbourne care home would have gotten away with, as well as continued their abuse. On behalf of his actions Joe has said: “I sincerely hope that what I witnessed… during my time undercover will help spark and inform a renewed debate on how we as a society treat our most at-risk.”[1] (BBC, 2011) His journalism led to change as the government changed their police, and this is a great example of how the dark arts have helped journalists make a difference.

Machiavelli’s quote was also the same sentence that Mazher Mahmood said when he was on trial at the Leveson Inquiry according to ‘The Sydney Morning Herald.’[2] The undercover journalist who now works for The Sun, previously worked for the NOTW where “his work led to more than 260 successful prosecutions.[3]” Mazher, would go under the false identity of a rich Gulf businessman so that he could “trap celebrities, politicians and suspected criminals.”

In addition, to produce a story under the unethical journalistic methods, there needs to be an element of public interest or the story won’t be as good. Public interest is an important factor to journalists and their stories, because it is what the public looks for and it also helps to highlight the good in the story rather than focusing on what bad techniques were used to find the story.

Ryan Parry made his name in the industry of journalism after providing bogus documents to apply for a job at Buckingham Palace. The public interest around his story was the lack of thorough research and security conducted on him before giving him a job as a footman. Working for the Daily Mail he said “had I been a terrorist intent on assassinating the Queen or American president George Bush, I could have done so with absolute ease,”[4] (BBC, 2003)

Despite Parry signing a confidentiality contract, he chose to break it, in order to publish his story. Whilst he was working at the Royal household he took pictures of various rooms inside, and he exposed how he easy it was for him to get a job at the Queen’s London house. Although the Queen managed to put a ban on his article, Ryan’s career in journalism was set, as while he forged his identity he unveiled an important story, which leads to change.

Tessa Mayes, an investigative journalist who broke the law through possession of heroin and using a fake I.D. to get a job in a brothel in pursue for her stories is another great example. In regards to her story, Mayes has quoted: “The first time I broke the law as a journalist it was intentional. I bought heroin from an international drug cartel, posing undercover as the wife of a major drugs dealer. I was knowingly dealing in Class A drugs.”[5] (Mayes, 2009) Although this was a violation of ‘The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971’ the research into the article went ahead as Mayes believed that it was in the interest of the public, who deserved to know about the methods of dug dealing across the U.K.  The story also could have potentially affected the human interest of the story as it was revealed that the gang members dealing the drugs were working in a chain of restaurants and with the gang members working as waiters. This type of exposure to a story would generate a lot of public emotion creating a story that everyone would want to know about, resulting in high volumes of newspapers being sold. Therefore, it is clear that in this case the lying and deceit from the journalist was justified as it helped to capture criminals and to make the public aware of drug dealings.

Mayes believed that “Journalists constantly have to balance how far they go in breaking the rules and if the story is worth it. You have to consider how other people will react to your story.”[6] (Mayes, 2009)

Unfortunately, along with the positive examples of the dark arts, there are contradicting negative examples.

Albeit, Mazher Mahmood has made great and positive journalism through acting on the dark arts, he has also been guilty of the negative influences. He has betrayed his family, family friends, forged identity documents and has even been accused of planning to kidnap Victoria Beckham.

Previously working as a journalist for the News of the World, “Mazher did effectively expose an impressive number of genuine criminal activities and was responsible for fingering the culprits, leading to convictions that were clearly in the public interest.”[7] (Burden, 2008)

Nicknamed as the ‘Fake Sheikh’, he used false identity to expose those in order to get a story. One interesting factor about this journalist is that he remains under a false identity for all of his stories and strays away from being exposed. This of course can be seen as unethical journalist.

Mahmood uncovered his family friends on their illegal video privacy business, to Super magazine, as  “Young Mazher’s eagerness for a scoop would not allow him to resist exploiting what was obviously a good saleable story,”[8] (Burden, 2008). His betrayal lost his trust with them, the Asian community and his parents. Peter Burden said in his book – Fake Sheikhs & Royal Trappings, “it was, by any journalistic standards a disgraceful act of betrayal.”[9] (Burden, 2008)

Burden could easily be argued on his statement, as the phone hacking of murdered Milly Dowler’s voicemail was an ultimate act of betrayal by journalists and more significantly NOTW. This unfortunate action taken by the journalists at the NOTW resulted in Dowler family’s false hope that she was alive after voicemails were deleted off her phone. This action sparked suspicion phone hacking and led to the revealing of unethical journalism, especially at the no longer existing NOTW.

Through this, a public inquiry was demanded on what lengths publications have gone through in order too produce a top news story, leading to the Leveson Inquiry.

‘The press ‘wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people’’[10] (Cathart, 2012) was the title to a blog on the Hacked Off Campaign website against the Leveson Inquiry. The Inquiry headed by Lord Justice Leveson, was started up on 13th July 2011 as requested by David Cameron, this inquiry is about ‘investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal (Leveson Inquiry, 2011). The inquiry consists of four modules, each which add up to look at the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’ (Leveson Inquiry, 2011), and how they affected the public, the police force and politicians.

After Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked, this caused a public outcry and lead to the termination of the NOTW newspaper and the arrest of some of it’s journalists.

In addition to the Dowler family, other people had been affected by the phone hacking scandal including: Sienna Miller, Colin Firth and J.K. Rowling.

Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the former of the News of the World was said to be a man who was “emboldened by powerful connections, news International’s executives had destroyed evidence, run smear campaigns, lied to Parliament and threatened and intimidated journalists, lawyers and politicians.”[11] (Watson and Hickman, 2012)

Mobile phone hacking is a serious crime, and an invasion of privacy, which unquestionably goes under the category of journalistic dark arts. The journalists were sneaky enough to get significant information from the hacking, leading to great news scoops and stories. Yet, their trust with the public is damaged, as the public fear at what great lengths a journalist would go to, for a story.

Once Sienna Miller’s phone was hacked, her privacy was invaded as her personal life was leaked into the public eye, where she was left feeling vulnerable and vigilant amongst her family members, co-workers and friends. Sienna told ABC news, “Stories were coming out that nobody knew about, that nobody except my mother, my sister, my boyfriend and my best friend, and there were times I’d sit down with those four people and accuse one of them of sending stories.” This is a prime example on how the dark arts, has negatively impacted the media. There is a loss of trust between the public and the journalism industry.

Journalists love to invade in a person’s privacy, as it is through this that a potentially great story is created. Taking Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge as an example of a public figure, who asked for her privacy from the press. However due to her social status, the press cannot help but expose her to any degree necessarily. Since the marriage to Prince William, Kate has found it difficult to keeping her private life to herself, especially after French photographers, spied on her during a holiday where they then leaked topless photos off the future queen, angering her and the Royal family. This became front page news.

To avoid being held responsible for the phone hacking and the victims, Murdoch and his family blamed the staff at the newspaper as they “insisted they had not known of the criminality.” (Watson and Hickman, 2012) This just added to the notion that the dark arts should not belong in journalism, and that the journalists that work under those ethics and morals are genuinely on their own when caught.

As a result of the Leveson Inquiry, Lord Leveson insisted that the current Press Complaints Committee was not regulating the media as sufficient and professional as it should be therefore, he called on a new regulating body to be set up.

The threat that now poses to the media and to journalists both in print and online is how to deal with the journalistic dark arts with the threat to the freedom of speech.

The Press Complaints Commission used to be in charge or regulating what is published as well as the behaviour of the press. However Judge Leveson concluded that a new regulation was needed in light of the phone hacking scandal.

On their website, the PCC state that they will deal with the behaviour of journalists who are “failing to be sensitive when dealing with cases involving grief and shock”[12] yet a clear example of how the PCC did not deal with the behaviour of the press under this code is false hope given to the parents of Milly Dowler.

What threatens journalists the most is the thought of being restricted to what they can write and what they can report. Leveson suggests that the new independent regulation needs to be stricter on the press. Without the freedom of speech, journalists feel as though they cannot do their job properly as oppose to before with the PCC.

A new legislation would make it harder for journalists to make contacts and get information for their stories. There would also be a further limit on what was allowed to publish in their stories, which can also possibly result in few options in story angles. And what could be seen as the biggest threat is the greater risk of journalists being sued.

Present newspaper corporations such as the Guardian etc. would often be regulated as a whole to make sure there is no possible chance of the press to publish anything illegal in the articles such as writing inaccurate stories or even partaking in more illicit behaviours such as phone hacking.

If a newspaper was to be caught in doing such actions again, it can lead to a costly lawsuit, where the paper is sued or the individual is sued and removed from the corporation.

In a BBC report, the Financial Times suggested that the “newspapers must now respond constructively and take up the offer “to develop reforms that workable and command public trust.””[13] (BBC, 2012)

The dark arts are a complicated element within journalism. Although the examples of Parry and Mayes etc. highlight the successes in the dark arts, the unfortunate phone hacking leading to the Leveson Inquiry portrays the sneakiness and lack of consideration for others by the press.  This resulted on an unwanted spotlight on the press and the production of its publications, leading to the call for new press regulation. A new legislation that will regulate the press, which could cause a dramatic change in the industry of journalism, for publications, journalists and the public.



  1. Leveson Inquiry. (2011). Background. Available: Last accessed 4th May 2013.
  2. Brian Cathcart. (2012). The press ‘wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people’. Are they sorry?. Available: Last accessed 4th May 2013.
  3. Tessa Mayes. (2009). Why I Broke the Law. Available: Last accessed 4th May 2013.
  4. Peter Burden. (2008). A Feikh of Araby. In: Julia Dillon News of the World? Fake Sheikhs & Royal Trappings. London: Eye Books. 194.
  5. BBC. (2011). Undercover reporter ‘haunted’ by abuse of patients. Available: Last accessed 6th May 2013.
  6. BBC. (2003). Queen wins ban on ‘footman’ article. Available: Last accessed 23rd May 2013.
  7. Amy Corderoy. (2011). ‘The end justifies the means’, reporter tells Leveson inquiry. Available: Last accessed 23rd May 2013.
  8. Peter Burden. (2008). A Feikh of Araby. In: Julia Dillon News of the World? Fake Sheikhs & Royal Trappings. London: Eye Books. 160.
  9. Peter Burden. (2008). A Feikh of Araby. In: Julia Dillon News of the World? Fake Sheikhs & Royal Trappings. London: Eye Books. 161.
  10. Josh Grossberg. (2011). Sienna Miller Talks Phone-Hacking Scandal: “It Was Bad for Me”. Available: Last accessed 22nd May 2013.
  11. Tom Watson, Martin Hickman (2012). Dial M for Murdoch. London: Penguin Books.
  12. Press Complaints Commission . (2013). Making a Complaint. Available: Last accessed 23rd May 2013.
  13. BBC. (2012). Press ‘need to act’ after Leveson. Available: Last accessed 22nd May 2013.

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