Phone Hacking and Digital Culture

If you’ve spent any time watching the live feed provided by The Guardian you will surely agree that the Leveson Inquiry into British Press ethics, practices and culture is the most riveting public inquiry since Watergate. I mean, you’ve got the most famous, the most beautiful, the most tragic, the most scarred and the most humiliated people in England parading past, one after another, each talking not only about their respective humiliations, scars and tragedies in explicit detail, but also, by doing so, bravely challenging the most feared, reviled and powerful hypocrites in England. And doing so with that combination of civility, frankness and articulate intelligence that only the Brits can deliver. A sort of perfectly produced reality-TV version of Rumpole of the Bailey for the 21st century. It truly could not get any better, short of the total collapse of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Something that is not entirely out of the question, as there is a great deal of dirt still to come. And dirt is a kind word, since many of these tales are heartbreaking, having resulted in ruined careers, and indeed ruined lives.

Today the inquiry heard testimony from Sienna Miller, JK Rowling and by Max Mosley, the former head of Formula 1 racing who was falsely accused by Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World of

Max Mosley likes group sex, but this Nazi orgy, trumpeted on the front-page of the biggest paper in the country, never happened, as the paper later acknowledged. Mosley testified today that his already-depressed son killed himself not long after this article was published.

participating in a Nazi-themed orgy (a particulary damning accusation in his case because his father, Oswald Mosley, was Britain’s most famous pro-Nazi fascist leading up to WW2). And as I watched, I found myself wondering – since I am particularly interested in conflicts between media cultures – whether the phone hacking scandal embodied to some degree a conflict between literate media and digital media.

Because the specific act that has triggered this high-profile investigation is ‘hacking’, a distinctly digital crime. And yet this phone hacking is not so much actual computer hacking as it is old-fashioned stealing, though in this case it is of passwords. Moreover, the perpetrators were newspapers, literate media, and they did their damage in print. So it would seem that this is not about digital culture. And yet, having thought it through for a while…

I would argue that what phone hacking represents is a war waged on oral relationships by literate institutions by means of digital tools. By this I mean that it is always interpersonal relationships that were targeted by the tabloids, and interpersonal relationships belong to the realm of oral culture and experience. Targets like Max Mosley were not attacked for their knowledge or their ideas or their work but for their personal experiences and relationships, which were their private business and should have remained so. But newspapers, preyed on those relationships by taking advantage of networked surveillance and then delivered their broadsides in print.

This is somewhat unusual, because literate institutions do not usually exploit digital tools so aggressively or inventively. But we have seen it elsewhere – notably in the financial sector – and it would not surprise me if we start to see it in other places too, for better or – more often – worse. In the realm of national security for example, although we don’t see it, it surely exists at very sophisticated levels.

The Brits have a grand literary tradition of dystopic technological futures, from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds through to Animal Farm and 1984. The Leveson Inquiry may yet become another resonant chapter in that disturbing but increasingly relevant trajectory.

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