Among the most deliberate and abhorrent mass violations of privacy committed in recent memory did not come as a result of technology, social services, databases, hackers, thieves, leakers, or governments. It was an act of a news organization, News Corp., which hacked into the phones of a reported 4,000 people, including not just celebrities but dead children and the families of the victims of terrorism and war.
The oh-so-rich irony is that this comes from the same company that, through its Wall Street Journal, fancies itself the protector of our privacy. The Journal would have us believe that web sites, technology companies, advertisers, and retailers are the enemies of privacy. No, it was their own corporate colleagues, their fellow journalists.
The solution to this threat to privacy is not to change technology or even the law. It is to enforce the laws, norms, and mores that already exist and hold to account the criminals and those responsible for their actions. That is, the managers of News Corp. That is, the Murdoch family.
This is not a matter of technology but of corruption.
Killing the offending News of the World is — I agree with the Guardian — a deeply cynical act. Some relatively small number of the paper’s employees was responsible for these acts — they’re presumed to be gone already. Now all of them are out of a job. Now a 168-year-old newspaper is dead — and it’s not as if we have any to spare. But the bosses responsible for the coverup remain.
The Murdochs apparently believe that they have amputated the offending limb and that’s that. But the toxin still flows in the bloodstream.
Mind you, I’m not your stock Murdoch basher. I worked for News Corp. in the ’90s, when I was TV critic at TV Guide, when the company owned it. I launched a magazine there and then went to work briefly at Delphi Internet when the company bought it (escaping in the nick of time before the first of many News Corp. internet disasters ensued). When News Corp. bought Dow Jones, I told reporters that I had not seen interference from Murdoch the way I had at revered Time Inc. That is to say, I defended Murdoch.
A further disclosure: My next book, Public Parts, was to be published, like my last one, by News Corp.’s HarperCollins. But I pulled the book because in it, I am very critical of the parent company for being so closed. It’s now being published by Simon and Schuster.
One more disclosure: I write for and have consulted for the Guardian, which has dogged this story brilliantly and triumphally.
Now having said all that, I’ll say this: News Corp. and its culture are simply corrupt. I’ll ask you this: Could you imagine such crimes occurring at Google? Wouldn’t these crimes mortally damage its brand? Could you imagine News Corp. taking Google’s pledge to do no evil? Those are rhetorical questions. The answers are obvious.
I’m most appalled that News Corp.’s crimes occur under the banner of journalism. Ah, professional journalism, which holds itself up above the supposedly nonexistent standards of bloggers and mere citizens and witnesses. Journalism, here to protect, educate, inform, and represent us.
I doubt we’ll end up with a Nixonian moment: What did Rupert know and when did he know it? But we can’t say the same for his son, James. See the Guardian’s annotation of James’ statement today (a new form of journalism, by the way), which only raises more questions. He is in charge of News International, the offending division. He is set to take over the company. The company is almost set to take over Sky.
I’m generally a critic of regulating speech and thus media. But the UK regulates media and I can’t imagine a better time to do so. What will the government do? If it allows the Sky acquisition to go through, then it makes a lie and laugh of its authority. Meanwhile, what can the profession do to amputate this diseased arm, News Corp.?
I know I sound strident here. I know some will properly accuse me of being late to the bonfire, having just confessed that I’d defended Murdoch. But the two go together. I was willing to give the Murdochs their rope. Now they’ve hung themselves with it.
The story’s a long way away from America. But News Corp. isn’t. Now all of us who live under its influence deserve to ask what they will do to fix the company’s corrupt culture that allowed these crimes. We can ask. But I don’t expect answers.