A true threat to privacy

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.

Power corrupts.

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.

  • It seems like I am a bit slow today, but I yet to see the point for the article. Can someone summarize please?

  • Here you go Yuri: news background summary and Jeff’s point of view summary.

    To summarise background news: the UK weekly tabloid (published on a Sunday) News Of The World will publish its last edition on Sunday.

    James Murdoch announced yesterday that News International will be shutting down NOTW after mass indignation and shock at the reported “phone hacking” of innocent victims of crime, terrorism and families of dead soldiers.

    Here in the UK there have been organised boycotts of brands and companies that advertise in the NOTW. Most of these companies removed their advertising and some retailers have refused to stock/sell the NOTW.

    Ironically, in my view, the NOTW was brought down by the same mass mob mentality it helped create as a sensationalist tabloid. Most of the “journalists” from NOTW also write/work for the other main UK News International daily publication The Sun. It is yet to be seen how the UK Twitter/Facebook/(Google+?) users who pressured the companies to pull their advertising from NOTW will treat The Sun and any other News International held media outlet.

    To summarise Jeff Jarvis’ point of view: News International publications and media outlets (including TV cannels) have been demonising the Internet as a threat to privacy for years. It is now clear the corporation culture at News International was anything but respectful of people’s privacy. Jeff has more trust in a company like Google than in a two-faced corporation like News International. Killing NOTW is cynical and maybe futile if the mob turns against all similar publications.

    There you go!

    P.S. Habermas would prefer to be watching Glee in a Chipotle.

  • Actually Jeff the upside of this is that we still have a legal, political and competitive system which brings such matters to the public attention and will inevitably lead to proper due process over and above the damage to brand News Corp. One has to question how many are breathing a sigh of relief elsewhere and thinking there but for the grace of God go I and we are in the midst of a silent war in my opinion, so this is just one of many casualties.

    In so far as your Google comparison, it is clearly the case that nobody can predict the leadership or culture of Google or Facebook in say five years time and already they command such dominance and influence that they are infinitely less likely to be challenged by the system above, so if there were serious transgressions, who would be left to challenge them? If they were truly altruistic, both Google and Facebook would have a contract with users that treated their digital ‘homes’ with the same jurisdictional rights of ownership, privacy and rights as their physical ones. Perhaps even using that as a benchmark for democracy. Until that time, the public have to base their faith on the assumption of the lesser of many evils, potential or as above proven.

  • Steve Matthewson

    Your own string of jobs at Murdoch firms (and nearly publishing your book at HarperCollins) – and I’m sure there are many UK/US journalists with similar job histories – tells a story in itself: An oligopoly with massive concentration in NI (and a few others). The laws that should be enforced are not just the privacy ones but the ones regulating competition and diversity in the media. I can absolutely see Google doing evil – not because Eric Schmidt is evil or his colleagues are corrupt but because when something that big, something will break, even if it’s at some point in the future under different management. Ditto governments of course.

  • Many valid points here, Jeff. No argument that what happened at NOTW was morally reprehensible. However, I’d stop short of claiming “Could you imagine such crimes occurring at Google?” What about Google’s compliance with censorship laws of the Chinese gov’t, and its (allegedly) assisting the Chinese authorities in providing information on dissidents and citizens advocating for human rights? It’s quite possible that there are folks either dead, imprisoned, or otherwise suffering some form of persecution due to Google’s misfeasance and failure to stand by ‘Don’t be evil’. I say this, by the way, as someone with considerable admiration and appreciation for Google, its contribution toward making knowledge (almost) universally accessible, and its many achievements overall. Anyway, there’s no excuse for what happened at NOTW. Not by a long shot. But rather than jump on the News Corp bashing bandwagon, I’d much prefer to see this scandal as a wake-up call to all of us working in media and its various outlets to do some deeper soul searching. I’ll bet we could all exercise some greater discretion — and kindness — when finding ourselves slipping from journalistic fair game to foul … and worse.

  • Ric

    Jeff, try living in Australia, where Murdoch dominates the media landscape. I’m not in the slightest bit surprised at the NOTW fiasco, or News Corp’s reaction to it. And for all his attempts, Rupert still doesn’t GET the internet … sooner News Corp folds the better

  • Jeremy

    I let my WSJ subscription run out just yesterday after reading one “story” in that paper about 3-4 months ago that was hyping the hysteria of the potential horrors that Wikileaks was unleashing on the world. The story sounded quite legitimate all the way to the last line, which basically said that the entire article was what *could* happen if Wikileaks continued to operate.

    Wait, did I just see that the WSJ just published an entirely fabricated story as if it were news?!? Yep! I just did. Wow.

    Although my one subscription cancellation is like voting in a national election – virtually non-important – I’m still taking the action. Why? Because I can’t support yellow journalism and supposed articles based on information sourced from “people close to the story” (who the crap are these random “people”?!) as the WSJ is so wont to do these days.

    Thanks to this website, TWiT, TWiG, and other blogs like these I’ve realized just how broken the old “journalism” sources are these days. My hope is that the younger generation will continue to ignore the old journalism ways and continue to look for factual, analytical news – not just popular pandering news used to distribute dead tree spamvertising.

  • Gina Welker


    I was a bit surprised to see you hold Google up as the protagonist in this particular case, given the current class-action suits (http://blogs.forbes.com/docket/2011/07/01/google-street-view-class-action-privacy-suits-allowed-to-proceed/) and government scrutiny of Google for the data swept from personal wifi connections during Street View.

    Google contends it “didn’t realize” it was amassing data from homes and businesses as its Street View cars drove by, but still keeps the data it found–unless it has been directly instructed to destroy it.

    Regardless of whether it was intentional, the incident, despite being ethically questionable, seems quite far from “mortally damaging” their brand.

  • Stan Hogan

    There is another Australian, Julian Assange, who has received much friendlier treatment here. WikiLeaks is embraced by Jeff because it is government information he broadly deems the public’s right to know.

    Government, however, sees great danger to its operations and potentially the American people from these releases of information.

    Seems like a slippery slope of private vs. public. News Corp and WikiLeaks. Which is the real threat?

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  • Fantastic post, Jeff.

  • mcg

    “Could you imagine such crimes occurring at Google?” Actually, yes, I can. Careful when asking rhetorical questions.

  • Umm, am I the only one to see that the NOTW shutdown is potentially a brilliant, and brilliantly cynical, marketing move?

    The scenario: being no longer able to resist the outcry, News Corp shuts NOTW down (making a ton of money on its last issue, by the way), Murdoch Sr. & Jr. do as many rounds as possible of mea culpas over a year (keeping NOTW media profile up), while News Corp quietly and secretly works on lower-cost redesign and restaffing, and a year later re-launches as a bigger, better brand, with high retention of its original market share.

    I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but this scenario seems plausible
    to me.

    Great post, Jeff.

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  • Nanker Phelge

    >>>I’ll ask you this: Could you imagine such crimes occurring at Google?

    Of course! You’re talking about a company that has an absolute contempt for law. Not _in any way_ defending News Corp. But let’s look at Google’s record . . .

    -Google deliberately profited from pirated content through YouTube, according to court filings in a class action case. _Under oath_, Larry Page said _he could not remember whether or not he wanted to buy the company_. Either he has some kind of memory problem, or he committed perjury,

    -Google made immense amounts of money with ads for illegal pharmacies, deliberately ignoring techniques they could have used to limit this.

    -The Wi-Spy scandal. Even if you think this is harmless, it’s illegal. Once caught, the company didn’t cooperate with foreign investigators – and its explanations for its actions have been laughable. What did Schmidt know and when did he know it.

    -Google has better connections to government that Murdoch could dream of. Obama hired the company’s lobbyist, who was caught trading strategies with company allies over Gmail – which as a White House employee he was forbidden from using.

    -Google controls the discourse about technology by funding academics. Tim Wu’s book-length valentine to Google was underwritten by a grant from the New America Foundation (chaired by Eric Schmidt). Sergay Brin’s mother in law is the vice chair of Creative Commons. And it funds every organization Lawrence Lessig has been involved in.

    The situation involving News Corp is absolutely terrible – and those involved should face harsh consequences. But if you believe that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Google’s power needs to be limited – immediately.

  • Unless I’m missing a huge part of the story, there were a handful of journalists at News of the World who hacked literally hundreds of phones to get private information to help them write stories. That’s reprehensible. They were fired and the newspaper is being shut down, probably because of its loss of credibility, and potentially because it was becoming unprofitable. I agree, the phone hacking was reprehensible. However, this opinion piece equates a few corrupt journalists with the entire News Corp. organization. Did News Corp. commission the hacking? What more could News Corp. do to convince us that there is no “toxin in the bloodstream?” Further, this act from a few journalists now brings the Wall Street Journal under suspicion? How?

    Journalists across the centuries have behaved unethically and illegally. These are no different. For that matter, every profession has their share of miscreants. Journalists live or die based on the trust they garner, and no one is shocked to hear when a journalist has behaved poorly. I worked at both a small television news organization and a Hearst Argyle owned news station, and each had their share of unethical journalists. To the extent that they were unethical, they were lousy. But did that mean it was a systemic problem? When news directors found out their reporters were underhanded, they lost their jobs.

    I agree that the answer is to enforce existing laws rather than make new ones. However, it’s difficult not to say that privacy is hampered by the Internet. The same search engines and social websites that help me find high school chums can uncover more information that has unknown unintended consequences.

    As for Google, I do trust them perhaps more than any other company around. They give me good results with search, and they have been doing an admirable job with my identity via Gmail. I am also very interested in Google+, which I have just begun using. I agree with the idea of data liberation, and I am a hard core Googler. Google understands, however, that they deal in trust. If I were to find out that some portion of my information was compromised, would I fault Google or the unethical rats that compromised it? It depends on Google’s reaction to the compromise. I am an owner of the Sony PS3…which has been hacked about as many times in the last 30 days as a giant spruce at a logger’s convention. Do I “trust” Sony now? I do, because their reaction has been satisfactory. They have repeated the same mea culpa and I’m okay with that. I understand that they don’t always get it right because some boneheads mess it up. That company, like any company, has people who are either malicious or incompetent. If the company policy, however, is that I bear the brunt of their mistakes, my opinion of Sony changes. Same with Google. They’ve done their boneheaded blunder with Buzz, and their swift admission of guilt was exactly what I wanted. There was no toxin in their veins I was waiting to have purged. They screwed up and fixed it.

    News Corp. had some unethical journalists who were fired, and now it’s an evil organization? I think they, like every company, has both miscreants and idiots. How the company deals with them should be the standard.

  • Thomas Olsen

    There is a campaign to stop Murdoch and his media regime:

  • Tradition is actually very hard to overcome and change. That has always been the problem. We need change but we need to start changing the way we think first so that it becomes easy to embrace change.