Is it ever acceptable for journalists to break the law?

Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist”

In the wake of the Leveson enquiry it became clear that many media giants and journalists had exploited the trust of those in the current affairs spotlight such as celebrities, politicians and victims of high profile crimes. Because of this, certain questions have been raised such as ‘Is it ever acceptable for the law to be broken for the sake of public interest?’

The role of journalists in our modern society is to act as an independent entity, observing and holding those in positions of power to account. In fact, the first clause of the international declaration on the conduct of journalists declares “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist”. (Harcup, 2006) To an extent a certain level of trust is bestowed upon journalists to reach conclusions and gain information in an honest and legal manner.

However, in some cases the true root of a story or investigation may lie only in the used of illegal methods. In this instance there arises a question of how we define public interest and whether information should be known or is merely being gained for public entertainment. It must also be considered whether it is ever okay to invade an individuals privacy in order to gain information. Mr Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who broke the Leveson scandal commented “I do not think journalists have any right to break the law other than a normal citizen has.”

In September 2012 Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions issued legal guidelines on assessing the public interest in cases affecting media. In an interview he said, “We would assess where there was evidence of criminal offence and whether the public interest in what the journalist was trying to achieve outweighed the overall criminality”. He went on to comment, “There are lots of examples of journalists who, on the face of it, may have broken the criminal law but have obviously pursued a greater good in doing so,” said Starmer (Williams, 2013)

Personally, I would tend to agree. Whilst it is difficult to assess a case, the ethical and criminal practises of the individual must be taken into account alongside the intention to reveal truth for the sake of the public.




HARCUP, T. (2006) The Ethical Journalist. SAGE

Williams, Z and Hopkins, N. (2013) UK’s top prosecutor defends journalists who break law in public interest [Online]