Monday
Jul252011

What really is happening with news of the world?

The News of the World is that the News of the World is no more. I mean more than just that the newspaper in question has shut down operations. I mean that this is one of those turning point moments that will convince us to stay on the pathway we are currently on, or force us to shift course.

The news of the world is that the world’s most notorious newspaper enterprise has been caught behaving badly. Specifically, transgressing privacy principles and in one spectacular case, causing untold grief and horror to a family of a murdered child. The secondary level is the deception, the not disclosing, but obfuscating on what the newspaper had done, and leveraging its vast, and effective, political and “PR” network to cement its non-disclosure.

There are a number of positions on this. The world needs investigative journalism because it is one of the few pillars able to unearth and expose the truths of public and private sector behavior. This is essential for accountability and that is important if we do indeed want to live in a world where there is any kind of equity, justice, civility and democracy. Indeed, investigative journalism is what uncovered this egregious use of investigative tools.

But investigative journalism costs money and requires financial and educational investment that in the current environment where “substantive news” is being trumped by “tid-bit salacious information”, there are fewer entities able to, or interested in, investing. Murdoch and his organization are one of the few entities able and interested.

And if his model is that he makes money from less savoury news publications in order to finance the more substantive (think News of the World and Wall Street Journal), this is a known model. Think of the movie house of the 1970s that showed pornography during the day so it could show art films in the evening. The means creates beneficial ends.

But transgressing privacy and being dishonest about it are unacceptable. Especially when a private family and their deceased child become caught in the deception. Unlike politicians or “famous” people who one can argue have a Janus-faced reliance on the news media, this family and the investigation into the death of their daughter suffered when they should have only benefited from investigative journalism.

This family was definitely the tipping event, but it has opened up the conversation of the boundary between public and private. Our expectation of privacy is threatened. We feel violated. And we are fearful of what a world that has access into our private lives will look like.

Look no further than to the UK. On a recent trip to London and the English countryside, the first thing one is keenly aware of is the ever-present CCTV cameras. They are everywhere, and just in case you were not aware they are watching, there are announcements that they are watching.

Be it 1984, or Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, or Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Civil Society – we are being watched.

New technologies enable new forms of watching. Why are we surprised that there is the ability to hack into private cell-phones? Did we think that mobile phones are exempt, out of the reach of technologically savvy snoopers?

Being watched can make us behave better. Earning the respect or adoration of another, or wanting to avoid criticism can make us behave better than when alone. All those with bosses know this to be a truth.

Being watched can also make life safer. The young girl who has to take the subway at night, or who needs to go into an underground parking lot knows the value of additional safety.

But being watched constantly and intently does reveal the illusion of personal privacy. So amidst all the criticism of Murdoch, his family, his Senior Executives, their connections to politicians and enforcement executives, what the News of the World has revealed is the illusion that we have personal privacy. And that I believe is a good thing. It will force us to understand what living in a world without privacy means. There are a number of possibilities: the truth of absolute publicity could make us better behaved; it could also force our more distasteful behaviours deeper underground; or it could redefine what is distasteful. What is clear is that the news of the world is that personal privacy is dead, long live the personal.

Whether Murdoch the Elder or the Junior should resign, or whether Prime Minister Cameron deserves the scathing critique, or how deep the connections between big business, government and enforcement go – these are all important issues to discuss and decide upon. But the one issue that is not being discussed is how private do we think we really are and how private do we think we can legitimately aspire to?

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