It’s ironic, given that US corporate interests (including one R Murdoch) are complaining about SOPA and how tomorrow/today’s internet blackout is an ‘abuse of power’, that it’s just emerged through the ongoing Leveson Enquiry, that the world’s third largest media conglomerate, News Corp, through one of its prestigious titles, The Times of London, hacked the identity of a prize winning blogger and – apparently without revealing this to the courts – fought a privacy case against him to out his real identity and silence his blog.
The blogger in question was Nightjack, a police officer who blogged so brilliantly about the realities of police work that he won the prestigious Orwell Prize in 2009. A few months later, the anonymous blogger was outed by the Times as Richard Horton. As a result he was reprimanded by his police employers, and his blog was deleted. (The copy above has been retrieved by someone else).
The case caused an outcry in 2009, not only because a valuable voice was lost, by it caused a landmark ruling in the British High Court that a blogger had no “reasonable expectation” to anonymity because “blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity”.
At the time the Times had argued it had deduced Horton’s identity from the material. But in his written statement today at the Leveson inquiry, the Times Editor James Harding admitted.
“There was an incident where the newsroom was concerned that a reporter had gained unauthorised access to an email account. When it was brought to my attention, the journalist faced disciplinary action. The reporter believed he was seeking to gain information in the public interest but we took the view he had fallen short of what was expected of a Times journalist. He was issued with a formal written warning for professional misconduct.”
However, he failed to mention that the article – written by media correspondent Patrick Foster – was still published, and Horton’s privacy case fought successfully by the Times through the courts.
Not only does this connect the hacking scandal beyond the now closed News of the World and The Sun to Murdoch’s broadsheet titles, it is also yet another example of egregious corporate double standards. While in the witness box today Harding had the temerity to complain that any kind or regulation would chill ‘free speech’.
“We don’t want a country in which the government, the state, regulates the papers … we don’t want to be in a position where the prime minister decides what goes in newspapers,” he said.
He added that if the outcome of the inquiry was a “Leveson act”, even one just offering a statutory backstop to an independent press regulator, it would be unworkable.
“The concern is that a Leveson act would give a mechanism to politicians to loom over future coverage,” of politics, Harding said, and start introducing amendments to this legislation “and that would have a chilling effect on the press”.
This from an editor who was responsible outing a celebrated blogger through hacking and then hounding him to the point of silence
This is a timely reminder that the threats to free speech don’t just come from governments but from corporations too, something I’ve begun to explore in the first chapter of my book (illustrated by Kossack Eric Lewis) Bad Press: Fall of the House of Murdoch (warning – long quote below the fold but I’m only abusing my own copyright)
“To keep the matter in perspective, let me repeat what I said at the beginning of this essay: that in England the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats”
George Orwell: The Prevention of Literature
We’ll never know what Orwell would have made of Rupert Murdoch, a press lord and film magnate, with the bureaucracy of News Corp virtually under his sole control. But over sixty years later, with the collapse of communism, and the near hegemony of market economics, new private bureaucracies have arisen: corporations which in an age of transglobal capital and borderless exchange, could be argued have become almost as powerful as many nation states. The debate about free speech, as evidenced so far by the Leveson Inquiry, has not updated itself to reflect this reality.
In crucial ways, I would argue that – throughout the Hackgate Scandal – we’ve seen vivid evidence of corporate censorship. From the mass deletion of emails, legal pay-outs with attendant non-disclosure orders, redundancies with confidentiality clauses, to professional harassment of lawyers and politicians, there have been clear examples forceful non-disclosure, even if it is in the guise of ‘reputational management’ rather than provable cover-up. But censorship and self-censorship are only the most egregious examples of the chilling of free speech.
As Orwell points out, the suppression of dissenting voices doesn’t have to be negative: it can achieved through the promotion of the favourable point of view, the acquiescent op-ed, the politically correct line. Though it’s not bribery, the blandishment of large fees on favoured politicians or public figures for their ghost-written Opinion pieces both co-opts them and the readership. Suppressio veri: Suggestio falsi. All it takes to promote falsehood is to prevent the truth.
One of the key revelations of the Hackgate scandal is a massive malfunction in the company’s core activity. The pages ahead will describe an ethos – right from Murdoch’s early days in Australia – in which crucial bits of information are withheld from the public for commercial or political leverage. In effect, Murdoch turned news into a currency that could be traded, sometimes with the public, sometimes with other players under the counter. Rather like Enron, the notorious US company which went from provision of energy to trading in energy futures, one can look at News Corps various gambles over the years – from the cross promoting of Sky in The Sun to the promotion of favoured politicians and public figures – as a trading in news futures: i.e. betting on outcomes rather than current events. And just as this kind of derivative trading is liable to consume the original activity (as Enron did by deliberately provoking power cuts in California to manipulate energy prices) I would argue that through both Hackgate and its reaction to it, News Corp has gone from being a news organisation to an anti-news organisation and failed its primary purpose.
As sites throughout the internet go dark, we should all remember what is at stake – and how the threats of censorship and suppression of free speech don’t only come from the state.
UPDATE: Looking again through the legal judgement in 2009 – and comparing with Harding’s confession to Leveson yesterday – it’s quite clear The Times misled the High Court. Paragraph three of Lord Justice Eady’s judgement makes it clear:
3. It was asserted in the Claimant’s skeleton for the hearing of 28 May that his identity had been disclosed to The Times in breach of confidence. By the time the matter came before me, on the other hand, Mr Tomlinson was prepared to proceed on the basis that the evidence relied upon from Mr Patrick Foster, the relevant journalist, was correct; that is to say, that he had been able to arrive at the identification by a process of deduction and detective work, mainly using information available on the Internet.
But it wasn’t detective work and deduction. The journalist hacked the blogger’s account.
Lincoln once wrote:
The London ‘Times’ is one of the greatest powers in the world – in fact, I don’t know anything which has much more power – except perhaps the Mississippi
And now we know that Murdoch’s outlet, once known as the world’s prime newspaper of record, not only closed down a fantastic blog by using illegal means to out the blogger, but knowingly deceived the High Court.
Nightjack’s anonymity cannot be returned to him. Once out of the bottle, it was gone for good. Lost too where all those great reports from the front line of policing. The internet lost a strong voice, forever. But The Times goes rolling on.
I’m amazed this isn’t getting more traction in the UK. In the US it should be more evidence for the ongoing DOJ, FCPA and RICO investigations.
UPDATEx2: David Allen Green has delivered the killer account of the saga on the News Statesman blog moments ago
The killer quote
If the Times did throw its financial and legal might behind a story which they knew to be based on computer hacking and did not inform the court — or found out later, and still told no one about it — then that, in my view, would be a scandal perhaps comparable to the tabloids’ abuse of phone hacking.