- A JOURNALIST for the Financial Times is under investigation by his employers over allegations he snooped on a Zoom call
- MARK DI STEFANO has been suspended by the FT after writing a story about confidential wage cuts and furloughing of staff at The Independent
- THE REPORTER allegedly monitored a private Zoom meeting between the newspaper and staff hit by the economic downturn caused by Covid-19
- A LEADING media barrister says the alleged invasion of privacy could be a criminal offence under Investigatory Powers, Data Protection, and Computer Misuse laws
- SIMILAR offences at the News of the World tabloid led the Metropolitan Police to launch Operation Weeting in 2011 – leading to a major criminal trial of journalists
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
A FINANCIAL Times journalist faces the sack and a potential police investigation after allegedly making a clumsy attempt to listen in to confidential and sensitive video calls at rival news organisations, Byline Investigates can reveal.
Mark Di Stefano is reported to have used his own Zoom account to access private meetings held by The Independent and The Evening Standard as senior executives informed staff of wage cuts and furloughs.
Following a complaint by The Independent, Mr Di Stefano has been suspended pending an investigation by the FT, which prides itself on high its ethical and journalistic standards.
The FT’s media and technology correspondent – who joined the paper to great fanfare from Buzzfeed earlier this year – then published what he had learned before some journalists had been told about their situations.
Legal experts have told Byline Investigates that Mr Di Stefano’s alleged behaviour could be both a criminal offence and a breach of civil law.
One of Britain’s top media lawyer Hugh Tomlinson QC cited the Data Protection Act and the Computer Misuse Act.
Mr Tomlinson told Byline Investigates: “A person who accesses someone else’s private Zoom conversations is likely to have committed criminal offences under the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Computer Misuse Act 1990.
“In addition, the access is likely to constitute a breach of data protection law, a misuse of private information and a breach of confidence.”
Other experts said Mr Di Stefano’s alleged interception displayed elements of ‘live phone tapping’ which is a possible offence of unlawfully obtaining communications data under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, punishable by up to 12 months’ jail.
A legal source said: “This could fall under Section 3 of the Investigatory Powers Act which precludes a person intentionally intercepting communications in the course of transmission by means of a public or private telecommunications system.”
Its predecessor, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (RIPA) was used to punish phone hackers at tabloid newspapers following the News of The World’s closure in 2011.
Mr Di Stefano is alleged to have initially used his own FT.com email address to briefly join the private video call for up to 100 Independent staff on Thursday.
The Independent was itself first to report on the matter on Monday (April 27).
The caller’s video was disabled, but journalists saw the journalist’s name quickly flash up on screen before leaving after 16 seconds, according to log files.
A separate account, this time anonymous, joined the call five minutes later, again with the video switched off, and remained in the meeting until the end.
This was later shown to be linked to the mobile phone used by Mr Di Stefano, who is originally from Australia.
Mr Di Stefano posted the news to his 116,000 Twitter followers while The Independent’s staff were still being told the ins and outs of salary cuts and furloughs, and before senior management had informed journalists who could not join the video call, including those based in the US.
The Financial Times then published a report on its website by Mr Di Stefano, The Indie’s quoting chief executive Zach Leonard and including confidential details regarding the company’s advertising downturn.
The article attributed “people on the call” as the source of the story.
A subsequent investigation by The Independent showed the account linked to Mr Di Stefano’s mobile phone had also gained access to an Evening Standard video call made on April 1 by editor George Osborne, which announced to staff large-scale furloughs and salary cuts.
This news also appeared on Di Stefano’s Twitter account, describing the “internal Zoom call” before it had ended, and a report quoting Mr Osborne in the private meeting appeared on the FT website.
It is not the first time Mr Di Stefano has referred to Zoom conferences in Tweets. On April 9 he referred to a Zoom call between unions heads at Reach PLC, the owners of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People newspapers, in which the furloughing of staff was discussed.
Press standards reformers have called for more effective regulation of papers like the FT, which polices itself under its owns set of rules called the FT Code.
While the FT is not a member of the corporate press industry’s self-regulator IPSO, criticised for never having used any of its regulatory powers, nor is it a member of IMPRESS, the Leveson-standard regulator which does provide effective regulation (and by which Byline Investigates is regulated).
Instead the FT hired its own independent Ombudsman to handle complaints but, unlike IMPRESS, it has no power to fine the publisher.
The FT’s code of conduct specifies: “The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by… intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails.
“Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge… can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.”
Nathan Sparkes, the Policy Director of Hacked Off which campaigns for Leveson-level independent press regulation, said: “Intercepting a Zoom call without consent is a serious breach of journalistic ethics.
“There was no public interest in intercepting this private call among employees at The Independent and Evening Standard.
“The Financial Times has a reputation for rarely breaching ethical standards in its reporting, but incidents like this prove the importance of independent regulation for all titles.”
Mr Di Stefano is understood to have been suspended by the FT pending an investigation after senior figures at the title were contacted by The Independent.
Both The Independent and The Evening Standard responded with anger at Mr Di Stefano’s alleged breach.
The story has been widely reported, and even made the Murdoch-owned The Sun Online and New York Daily Post.
Tabloid journalists have long argued that their papers were unfairly and disproportionately attacked for phone hacking, when many broadsheet writers were found to have indulged in similar widespread privacy intrusions.
The editor of The Independent, Christian Broughton, said: “We respect freedom of speech and understand the challenges of newsgathering, but The Independent considers the presence of a third-party journalist in a staff briefing to be entirely inappropriate and an unwarranted intrusion into our employees’ privacy.
“Our spokesperson had a full statement prepared for the press – any interested reporters only needed to call and ask.”
A spokesperson for the Evening Standard said: “For a journalist from the FT to have illegitimately accessed a private Zoom call is unacceptable.
“We are sure the FT will want to offer an immediate explanation and an apology.”
Mr Di Stefano joined the FT as a media and technology reporter in January from Buzzfeed where he had worked as a media and politics reporter since 2017.
Lionel Barber, then editor of the FT, said at the time: “Mark is a tenacious reporter who pursues original, agenda-setting stories. I am delighted he is joining the FT.”
News editor Matthew Garrahan added: “The media and tech worlds are colliding, and Mark is going to be a real asset for us. He has a bursting contacts book and he loves to break scoops.”
Prior to joining Buzzfeed in the UK, Mr Di Stefano was Buzzfeed Australia’s first news hire in 2014, and before that he was a news reporter for ABC.
Byline Investigates has asked The Independent and the Metropolitan Police Service to confirm whether any formal complaint is being investigated.