Can media ‘leaks’ be ethically condoned?

The release of such recordings were directly intended to damage the image of those involved.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara (L) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara (L)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent release of secretly recorded private conversations of members of the Netanyahu family requires that we take a careful look at the ethical ramifications of such actions.
On the face of it, public release of private conversations constitutes a direct attack on individual right to privacy. But beyond that there is the broader implication on the societal level of privacy no longer being considered an individual right. Consider medical professionals, for example, who are exposed on a daily basis to information that if known to the general public could be extremely detrimental to the person involved. Moreover, once people are robbed of the assurance that their medical details are private, they will be far less likely to seek out assistance when they need it.
When it comes to journalism, law enforcement and the defense community it is perhaps even more clear why “leaks” can be deadly. There are no shortage of people who have died because information was callously leaked. And on a basic ethical level, it is clear why informants and sources need to know that their conversations will not become public knowledge.
But like in all aspects of ethical discourse, there are no absolutes.
In medicine, we can look to extreme cases such as a physician knowing a carrier of HIV continues to threaten transmission through irresponsible behavior. Or an epileptic who continues to drive thus presenting a threat to the public.
So we are forced to accept that when there is a public threat, ethics may mandate that we speak out.
To summarize, ethics deliberations are by no means a zero-sum game. Every case requires a careful analysis, weighing the public vs the individual good.
Returning to the public discourse surrounding the Israeli media in recent days and weeks, we must acknowledge that the release of the two recordings, first of Yair Netanyahu and more recently of Sara Netanyahu, were designed solely to harm and had no obvious correlation to public safety.
The release of such recordings, clearly made and released without the intent or approval of the recorded parties, were directly intended to damage the image of those involved. No lives were being saved or protected by feeding the public’s desire to be shocked by sensational headlines.
As a society that promotes ethical behavior and strives to defend personal rights and interests, even of our public officials, it would therefore be prudent to act with heightened respect for those ideals.
The author is a rabbi and the director of the Center for Jewish Ethics of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.