Blog - Commentary

No evidence of change

The Leveson enquiry has not managed to persuade companies of the benefits of recording telephone calls. But there is still a case for it, argues Nigel Cannings

Listening on the telephone

Finally, I finished reading the Leveson Report, all seven million words of it. My Christmas lunch was a lot easier to digest… I had, you see, read of all the summaries, but I was so shocked by one omission that I had to read it all, just in case it was hidden in the small print.


You see, what ultimately hung the press out to dry was not the evidence given at the Inquiry itself.  No, it was the evidence that the press themselves had retained and which was carted off by the police, and there on into civil actions galore.  Operation Weeting, for example, was given access to literally millions of emails, so many that it was hard pushed to properly analyse them or even start to search through them.


It’s the records, stupid


It was the records that the press had retained, in many cases in the form of e-mail, that has allowed so much to be found out about what was really going on during the dark days of phone-hacking (alleged and otherwise). So, what lessons will the press have learned from the Leveson/News of the World experience?  Is it a) keep absolutely everything you have ever said or done so that you can hand it over to eager prosecutors in a few years’ time?  Or is it b) shred like it’s 1986 (and you are Oliver North)?


All I was looking for was something that placed an onus on the press to maintain records, much as other regulated industries are.  The Money Laundering Regulations, which cover many of the professions including lawyers,  require certain documents to be retained for five years after a transaction is completed.  The FSA mandates document retention policies across all business areas, ranging from six months for telephone records to a permanent retention for the most important documents.  Why not the press?


Phone call logging


My particular bugbear is the retention of telephone records.  It is ironic that for an inquiry so obsessed with the recorded voice that Leveson did not recommend some phone recording of his own.  Put simply, if you think journalists behaved irresponsibly in what they said in email, imagine what you might have picked up had you had access to their phone calls.

 It is the default medium for when you want to say something that can never be proven, and which cannot be traced back to you.  My guess is that as well as deleting e-mails like crazy, journalists will be moving more and more to “off-the-record” chats on the phone as a way of avoiding scrutiny.


Policing all communications


Of course, you cannot police every single communication, but you can at least have a stab at it, and this is an issue that goes much wider than Leveson.

Unless you happen to be in one the very niche industries where phone calls have to be recorded (such as a trading desk), or you happen to work for me, I can pretty much guarantee that next time you pick up that phone and talk to someone, what you say will disappear into the ether as soon as it is said (that is unless you and the person on the other end are very devious, or are taking staggeringly detailed, contemporaneous notes . And, by the way, find me two file notes of the same conversation that ever match! 


However, there is a pretty good chance that the follow-up email is archived away somewhere deep in the bowels of your organisation, ready to be dredged up in the future in the case of a dispute, or if the regulators or a friendly peer of the realm come knocking.  In some cases, although this is still in the minority, if you pinged your opposite number using Instant Messaging, that too will be tucked away, possibly in the same archive.


Recording telephone calls


There was a brief moment when the entire country was focussed on recordings of telephone calls.  A handful of voicemails, illegally intercepted, were enough to bring down a newspaper that had existed for almost 170 years, and which had weathered countless controversies before.  All Leveson had to do was say “and it would be a jolly good idea if we knew what those blasted journos were saying while they are haranguing poor innocent members of the public by phone”. Was it really too much of a leap from one to the other?  How else can we prove that they have changed their spots?


The case for the prosecution


The fact is at one time, we didn’t retain any electronic records at all. Only as their usefulness in evidencing the past has become obvious have we expected and later insisted that they are retained. One day soon, as someone wakes up to the fact that having a copy of what was agreed in a phone call might actually make or save them some money, will we start to see widespread retention and indexing of phone calls. 

Ok, so one of the greatest scandals of the century so far hasn’t managed to convince people, but there’s always the next one… 



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16 January 2013

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