As regular readers of this blog will know, I believe we are living through a profound cultural crisis as digital culture (OS3) undermines and overthrows literate culture (OS2). My new book, You Are Your Media, tracks this conflict across many different social spheres, from food to architecture to business and beyond. Remarkably, we can see that conflict playing out daily at the UK’s Leveson Inquiry: Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press, also known as the ‘phone hacking scandal’ inquiry.
I’ve written about the inquiry before (here and here) and it continues to generate both stunning revelations and increasingly high-stakes consequences for the British press and Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, News Corp. In this blog post I’ll fill you in on a few of the latest developments and consequences, but will also look at the bigger picture to see where all of this is heading, and why. Because, in my opinion, the phone hacking inquiry is a microcosm of the social conflict between OS2 and OS3 that is playing out in many other areas of our lives. Thus understanding what is happening in Leveson’s pseudo-courtroom will actually shed light on what is happening in schools, governments, offices and homes around the world.
So what is happening?
Well, for starters, 18 journalists and editors and 3 policemen have been arrested, the country’s largest newspaper was closed, the head of Scotland Yard and several other senior police officers have resigned, and senior executives of News International have admitted under oath that they lied to a previous British parliamentary hearing into phone hacking and also destroyed evidence. But that is really just the beginning. Here are a few more recent tidbits:
– News Corp. admitted to having deleted 300 million emails in an attempt to prevent investigators learning about the extent of their corporate corruption.
– British forensic IT units successfully reconstituted all 300 million of those emails and they are now being searched by British police for documentation of bribery of public officials and police officers as well as evidence of phone hacking and cover-ups at the highest levels.
– based on evidence found in those emails, 5 senior editors of The Sun newspaper (also owned by News Corp.) were arrested last weekend and charged with bribing public officials, bringing the total number of well-known journalists and editors charged to nearly two dozen, with many more likely still to come.
– A federal investigation is currently under way in the USA that may lead to a Grand Jury and felony charges being laid under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act against Rupert and/or James Murdoch if it is proven that New York-based News Corp. employees did indeed bribe public officials in the UK or elsewhere. If such a prosecution were successful, it could also result in significant jail time and billions of dollars in fines.
– it is all but certain that a powerful new regulatory body will be established to oversee the behaviour of the media in Britain, which will explicitly include some form of oversight of content and a strong mandate to censure newspapers that print material that infringes on privacy.
And all of this is happening with Phase 1 of the Leveson inquiry yet to be completed, and the two police investigations – Operation Elveden and Operation Weeting, with a combined 176 full-time investigators – very far from complete. The next phase of his inquiry will focus on the relationships between the press and the police, and it too will surely bring its share of scandalous revelations. Who knows where it will all end? With the Murdochs in jail and their media empire in ruins is not an entirely improbable outcome at this point. For those of you reading this in Canada or the USA or elsewhere, just imagine if the leading editors, journalists and policemen in your country were resigning and/or being arrested. This is big news.
Yet there are even greater potential consequences. And deeper conflicts than simply whether or not News Corp. employees ‘broke the law’.
I would argue that the actions of the editors and reporters who hacked thousands of cell phones and email accounts, who planted trojans on personal computers of celebrities and political figures, who bribed policemen and doctors to obtain personal information and who then splashed all of this once-private information on front pages, were actually in accordance with the most basic precept of OS3 culture. Namely, that information wants to be free.
In fact, I would go further, and say that these illegal actions were almost entirely enabled by OS3 technology. To begin with, the insatiable public appetite for celebrity tattle has been hugely fuelled by digital networks. The 24-hour news cycle is a ferocious beast that can never be satisfied. The competition is too great. The pressure too great. The rewards too great. The source material too plentiful, what with everyone on the planet walking around with a networked camera and typewriter, so that pictures surreptitiously snapped on beaches in Thailand or the Bahamas are flashed round the world mere hours later.
Moreover, ‘phone hacking’ could only happen once mobile phones and voice mail and digital networks were widely used. ‘Hacking’ is itself an OS3 concept and practice. Before mobile phones came along, journalists were not known for breaking into people’s homes and stealing their answering machines, nor did they typically steal personal mail, largely because this is widely understood to be a criminal act that carries a very heavy price. But when mobile phones came along, and journalists learned that just sitting at their desks they could listen to the personal messages of the most famous people in the land, well…that hyper-efficiency changed everything.
Just as it did for Bradley Manning when he downloaded 250,000 cables onto a couple CDs. In the old days of OS2, meeting secretly to hand over secret documents to foreign agents was obviously a criminal and seditious act. In the age of OS3, his downloading and sharing files the same way you or I share MP3s felt natural and normal. It’s too easy to be illegal. Just as Googling answers to test questions on the smart phones in their pockets makes sense to students around the world yet is labelled ‘cheating’ and results in being thrown out of class, or possibly out of school altogether.
These are the same issues.
For better or worse – or more accurately – for better and worse, OS3 tools and culture are challenging the familiar ethical standards of OS2 culture everywhere we look. Simply because they make certain actions far easier than they have every been before. And each time this ongoing conflict emerges into the light there is outrage and horror and stern rebuke and worse. In Bradley Manning’s case there will likely be life in prison. And for many British editors and journalists and perhaps for police officers and News Corp. directors there will be some jail time too. And that new regulatory body will be established to monitor British newspapers. But will any of this matter? Will it have any effect whatsoever on the obliteration of the distinction between private and public information?
I don’t think so. Consider that the Leveson inquiry has shown that one of the main strategies newspapers used to present information they had obtained illegally was to first release it anonymously on an obscure website, so they could then claim it was news that was already in the public domain. Which is to a certain extent a valid – if utterly self-serving – argument. Is there any chance this tactic can be stopped? How could any regulatory body ever control the publication of information on all the blogs of the world?
Besides, just look at the kids. Teens using facebook have no expectation of privacy. They don’t see the point in it. And to me this seems weird and problematic for all kinds of reasons, just as I dislike the wretchedly conniving and muckraking behaviour of News Corp. employees. But in theory, if I support Bradley Manning’s right to share ‘private’ military data, and my right to share MP3s, then it should perhaps not surprise me or even upset me that prurient editors spend all their days trying to force everything personal into public view. This all comes with the territory. Whether or not you or I like that territory is irrelevant. Because the new map of the world includes the Internet. It may in fact be the Internet.
Alternately, a related perspective is that this is all part of the new surveillance culture, in which information may turn out to be free, yet not yield freedom. In which all private information is public, except the information about who is monitoring your information. Because we will never be able to establish the equivalent of a regulatory body to oversee what the CIA or CSIS or MI6 or Interpol or any number of other far more secret snoopers are finding out about us. A degree of invasion of privacy that makes Rupert Murdoch’s gang of bullying journos look like the rank amateurs they are. All of which makes the actions of Bradley Manning and Wikileaks that much more important, as we gradually figure out how to watch the watchers.
That is what Lord Justice Leveson is doing every day. Watching the watchers. But he is only watching a small subsection of them. For they are both nowhere and everywhere. Everyone and nobody. At the end of his mandate he will do his best to present a framework for preventing the obliteration of privacy, for holding back the end of OS2 and the triumph of OS3 on at least one field of battle. And he may – perhaps – even win that battle. For a while. But he cannot win the war. Not with a billion people on facebook.
We are evolving into an OS3 world whether we like it or not. Our challenge is to discover an ethics that begins where privacy ends.