Worse than the Asiatic Plague

In Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard has some harsh words for peddlars of gossip that are very apropos for last summer’s News of the World scandal, and the ongoing investigations into media ethics prompted by it.  

 Is indeed any robber, any thief, any assailant, in short, any criminal, as fundamentally depraved as such a person who has made it his task, his contemptible means of livelihood, to proclaim on the greatest possible scale, as loudly as no word of truth is heard, as far-reaching across the entire country as something beneficial seldom reaches, penetrating into every nook where God’s Word hardly penetrates—to proclaim the neighbor’s faults, the neighbor’s weaknesses, the neighbor’s sins, to force upon everyone, even unstable youth, this defiling knowledge—is any criminal as fundamentally depraved as such a person, even if it were the caese that the evil he told was true! 

. . . 

Ah, there are crimes that the world does not call crimes, that it rewards and almost honors—and yet, yet I would rather, God forbid, arrive in eternity with three repented murders on my conscience than as a retired slanderer with this dreadful, incalculable load of crime that had piled up year after year, that may have spread on an almost inconceivable scale, put people into their graves, embittered the most intimate relationships, violated the most innocent sympathizers, defiled the immature, led astray and corrupted both young and old—in short, spread on a scale of which the most vivid imagination cannot form a conception—this dreadful load of crime of which I had never had the time to begin to repent because the time had to be used for new crimes, and because the innumerability of those crimes had secured for me money, influence, almost esteem, and above all a pleasurable life!  In connection with arson, we make a distinction if someone who sets fire to a house knows that it has many occupants or that it is unoccupied; but by means of slander to set fire, as it were, to a whole society—that is not even regarded as a crime!  We quarantine against the plague—but to the plague that is even worse than the Asiatic plague, slander, which corrupts the soul and mind, to that we all open our houses; we pay money to be infected; we greet as a welcome guest the one who brings the infection!

Phone-Hacking and Other Misdemeanors

I’ve been procrastinating from offering any public comment on the massive phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed News International and the UK government in recent weeks, as there has been in general more than enough comment to go around, and I figured I could count on my friend Byron Smith to offer some intelligent and provocative reflections on the.  He has not failed me, offering two contributions on the subject last week, one considering the scandal in light of the Wikileaks controversy a few months ago, and another on the systemic flaws it exposes in our corporate culture.

I thought I would also add a few thoughts of my own, seeking to answer the question, “Why has this caused such a furor?”  Don’t get me wrong.  News International’s actions are appallingly irresponsible and depraved.  But the public furor-to-depravity ratio in this recent scandal has far exceeded most other corporate crimes of recent years.  It’s worth cynically asking why.  I have four suggestions.

1) The Scapegoat Factor.  News of the World went to such lengths to invade people’s personal lives because their customers demanded it.  They didn’t wake up one day and say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to ruin other people’s lives for kicks?”  No, they had millions of customers who wanted to feast off of juicy gossip and the public humiliation of others.  They were simply trying to increase their supply to keep up with demand.  This doesn’t get them off the hook in any way, but it suggests that perhaps some of the public fury is the result of a guilty conscience.  Society at large is guilty of this wickedness, and we need a scapegoat to unload our guilt.  Who better than a multi-billionaire like Rupert Murdoch and his minions?

2) The Competition Factor.  This scandal has befallen one large media conglomerate, one that has had rival media outlets fuming in impotent envy for years as it continued to grow its monopoly.  Now they have a chance to hit back.  The media might have occasionally have fun bringing down an Enron or a Lehman, but that’s nothing compared to the satisfaction of bringing down a rival.  So you can expect all non-NewsCorp media are making as much of the scandal as possible.

3) The Misdirection Factor.  It can be quite useful to parade your sins in public and make them out to be terrible indeed–if you’ve got much worse sins lurking in the closet.  You can pretend that you’re coming clean and acknowledging all your faults, so people will forgive you and trust you henceforth, never knowing that you’re just trying to distract their attention from the much worse sins you haven’t given up.  Phone hacking and police bribing is probably pretty minor when compared to the media’s massive collusion in deception and war-mongering, as documented in John Pilger’s The War You Don’t See.  By exposing the minor fault and making a great deal of it, the media can hope to persuade the public that this is the worst of its crimes.

4) The Hypocrisy Factor.  Similarly, the government stands to benefit from angry rants against the wickedness of News International, even if some of this rebounds upon government officials that had close ties to NI executives.  The government can pretend that phone hacking is an unthinkable intrusion on people’s privacy, conveniently obscuring the fact that, especially since 9/11, UK and US governments have been engaged in massive unconstitutional breaches of privacy that make anything News of the World did look like child’s play.