My day with a Hacker.

Last November in Dublin, Tuesday the 16th to be precise, I attended along with other journalists in the city, a day long event entitled “Hacks and Hackers”.

Perhaps I should explain…The event was being run by Scraper Wiki a UK based organisation committed to spreading the word among journalists about the future of online investigation.

At the start of the day one was badged as either a “Hack” or a “Hacker” and paired off.

No laws were broken and the only info accessed through the writing of specific code (the Hacker’s task) was on Irish government websites. The key was to ask the correct digital questions through the specific coding. There were times during that day when I thought I knew what was going on and that I understood everything fully. Then I realised that I hadn’t been paying full attention. I totally accept that everything I didn’t understand that day from the mouth of my very patient hacker was significant. I tried my best, but when he started to speak to me in scraperspeak it was all Geek to me.

My group’s presentation was to scrape the data on the presence of speed cameras around the Republic of Ireland and look at the impact on the numbers of road deaths in those areas.

The good folk at Scraperwiki believe that “Scraping” or “Data mining” will be at the centre of investigative journalism in the future it is about asking the correct questions of websites of public agencies.

I finished the day at least knowing about this new form of online investigation and that I would have to become conversant with it in the future.

Throughout that day I was getting emails from contacts about the Dallas email story that I was working on. The following day I would be in Glasgow for a three day research trip on that story. It was a reminder to me that the online world could not fully replace the gut instinct and shoe leather that is at the heart of many scoops.

There is, of course, a line between proper investigative journalism (e.g. Dallasgate) and the Millie Dowler case-that line is called the law.

Although the presumption of innocence, as always, is in place it is clear that at some people at the News of the World were involved in a criminal conspiracy with some officers in the Metropolitan police.

As regular readers of this site will know I have, over the last three years, been a freelance contributor to the Scottish edition of the News of the World. Almost all of my NOTW copy  appeared under a “House By Line”.

In that time I built up good working relationships with the people on the news desk in Glasgow.

I am convinced, as much as I reasonably can be, that the good folk in the NOTW office in Queens Street had no idea that this was going on in London.

By the nature of criminal conspiracies the fewer people in the know the better.

Today hundreds of good journalists face an uncertain future.

Like the banking crisis the people at the top apparently think that they are  able to live to a different set of rules to the minions further down the organisational food chain.

An amoral elite, fully equipped with a messianic belief in their own worth, can seemingly walk away from the wreckage that their hubris creates.

I hope they find out that they are mistaken in that belief.