The Lives of Others

What is the difference between the News of the World’s invasion of a dead teenager’s phone account and the Julian Assange’s attempts to penetrate classified information?  In the first case a missing girls account was accessed by a private detective working in the employ of a newspaper in order to drum up a juicy story. In the second, newspapers negotiated to print information that had been classified in order to get a juicy story. Why is one reprehensible and the other laudable? Is there any consistent litmus test to determine whether one should be hailed as a hero and the other villain?


Steven Glover at the Daily Mail wrote in 2010 about Wikileaks and an earlier News of the World phone-hacking attempt. “Everything we know from WikiLeaks was supposed to be private — the comments by the king of Saudi Arabia, who urged the Americans to attack Iran; the remarks of Chinese diplomats indicating that they might be prepared to see the demise of their ally, North Korea; the ­publication of a long list of key American facilities around the world, including pipelines and communication and transport hubs, which the State Department claims could critically affect U.S. national security.”

Let me say that I also abhor phone hacking as it was practised by the News of the World, though I can imagine some situations (for example, a government minister passing secrets to a foreign power) when it would be defensible, indeed necessary.

The Guardian has led a kind of holy war against the News of the World, and has in particular tried to pin the blame for what it has represented as a uniformly evil practice on Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World when the hacking came to light, and now David Cameron’s communications chief. Though he resigned his editorship at the time, Mr Coulson denies any knowledge of what went on. …

If an organisation is to be judged by its supporters, WikiLeaks is rather scary and destructive. Even before this week’s events, it was already clear that it owes no loyalty to any one country. It exists in cyberspace, and its only friend is what it declares to be ‘the truth’. WikiLeaks does not respect the secrets of governments or the privacy of individuals.

So I wonder how the organisation’s newspaper collaborators are now viewing their new wild partner. In Britain, The Guardian newspaper has been given privileged access to the 250,000 WikiLeaks cables. Four other liberal-minded publications around the world have also been granted preferential treatment, including The New York Times.


Richard Northedge argues that while legal hairs may be split, in practice there is no “obvious moral line” between spying for a good cause and reprehensible behavior. Is he right, or is there some clear bright boundary between what we may know and not be allowed to know?

Politicians regard leaking letters as fair game; parliamentarians use their privilege to break high-court injunctions to reveal the names of bankers and footballers. Newspapers that denounce the Murdoch press for phone hacking happily sign exclusive deals to disseminate Wikileaks’ stolen documents on world affairs or to print details of MPs expenses that were obtained by theft.

Using a long lens to spy on folders being carried into Downing Street by MPs or policemen is regarded as good journalism. The Freedom of Information Act permits papers to demand information such as salaries or convictions at public bodies and the use of company or court documents is seen as transparent disclosure rather than prying into private matters.

So we condone a culture of entitlement to see secret information. The legal limit of acceptability may be clear (to a lawyer) but there is no obvious moral line. It is thus hardly surprising if some journalists go the short further distance to looking at the contents of dustbins o[r] listening into phone calls.

Open thread.


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