The limits of the public’s right to know

The newspaper has already admitted invading the privacy of eight individuals, but the number of accusations is in the thousands.

July 7, 2011 23:01
3 minute read.

ASHER MEIR 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The News of the World hacking scandal continues to make headlines.

The British tabloid first made news in 2006, when a low-level editor and an associate were arrested and ultimately convicted and imprisoned on charges of hacking into the voice mail of newsworthy individuals (in this case, members of Britain’s royal family) to obtain confidential information.

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Ultimately the scandal spread in terms of both breadth (the number of individuals engaging in hacking and consequently the number of victims) and height in the hierarchy of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns the tabloid. The newspaper has already admitted invading the privacy of eight individuals, but the number of accusations is in the thousands.

There are two ethical issues here. One is journalistic ethics: the familiar ethical dilemma of the right to privacy versus the public’s right to know. The other is business ethics: how far up the News Corporation pyramid do managers bear responsibility for the affair, which is limited to one newspaper? The owner of the corporation, Rupert Murdoch, issued a strongly worded condemnation of the affair, evidently acknowledging that the company as a whole bears some responsibility.

The journalistic ethics issue in this case is not very complex. First of all, in Britain, phone-hacking is a crime. Therefore it is not the usual case of respecting privacy versus getting a good story, but rather one of criminal activity, for which the ethical bar is far higher. Engaging in criminal activity to obtain information could be justified only if the public’s right to know is being unconscionably frustrated, as Daniel Ellsberg felt was the case regarding the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s.

The second consideration is that almost all of the information was not truly newsworthy at all; it would be better described as “tabloid-worthy.” For example, one of the leaks involved Prince William’s knee surgery; this would be classified as gossip rather than news. So we have an act that requires an unusually high level of importance to be justifiable and “news” that meets a ridiculously low bar. Some of the hacks were particularly despicable; for example, involving crime victims and families of fallen soldiers.

What about the business ethics issue? To the extent that senior management knew or should have known of the breaches, the responsibility is very great.

If management is insulated from knowledge of the affair, then we would judge the overall corporate culture. If there is a culture that encourages ethical conduct, then we may be inclined to dismiss an occasional scandal as the work of a few rogue employees. But if there is a culture that encourages cutting ethical corners, then we would be much more inclined to view the employees as loyal or even “exemplary” according to the distorted standard of the organization.

Here also things do not look so favorable for News Corporation. On the first issue of management awareness, there are many allegations that the editor of the paper at the time had knowledge of the phone-hacking, not just the lower level editors or reporters who engaged in the behavior. That such egregious and even criminal behavior was so widespread certainly makes it plausible that the conduct was known and condoned by management. No doubt more information will be come to light in the coming weeks.

There also is a salient ethical question on the second issue. The New York Times reported that “Risk-taking and line-skirting have always been just one more cost of doing business for Rupert Murdoch.”

When you have a reputation for skirting the line, it is much harder to evade responsibility when you “accidentally” cross it.

The ethical tension between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know is a genuine and troubling one, but in the News of the World case the breaches of privacy have been so widespread and egregious, and the public’s right to know so negligible, that no dilemma is present.

Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).

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