news and privacy

A while ago, I posted about the importance of privacy, and controlling how your personal information is being shared and used by the services that you engage with on line.  Over the past few months since I wrote that post, we’ve seen the furore about super injunctions being played out across Twitter, and over the past few days, the scandal about the News of the World “hacking” into people’s mobile phone accounts has risen again.

These two stories are highly related, and pertinent to the way that every individual should take care to protect their information.

Facebook and Privacy

When you use your Facebook account, you do so in the knowledge that you are providing personal information into a controlled public forum.  When you sign up for your account, and regularly thereafter, you have the opportunity to control how that information is used.  Although the privacy policy is labyrinthine, there is control over the specific implementation, and you can set things according to your preferences.

Regardless of whether or not you actually read the Terms and Conditions, you agree to them, and those terms include information about how Facebook will use your personal data to provide advertisers with demographic data to help with the targeting of adverts.  Without the adverts, Facebook would not be free.  It’s a consensual relationship between adults, and whether or not you think that some of Facebook’s use of data is creepy, it doesn’t really matter that much because you have a choice.  You can use it, or not.

The Ryan Giggs Factor

While Wayne Rooney has always been a bit of a “rum ‘un”, getting into scrapes, and enjoying the trappings of his success, team mate Ryan Giggs has built a persona around his clean living family man image.  He’s not had the same media profile as Rooney, and not had the same level of endorsements as Rooney either, but he’s done pretty well for himself.  When it emerged that he had “allegedly” conducted an affair with a former big brother contestant, this was big news, however Giggs sought the protection of the courts through a super injunction to maintain his image.

Imogen Thomas
Imogen Thomas

This cut off the ability of news papers in the UK to print stories about his affair – until of course the sheer volume of Twitter chatter that named and shamed him made the injunctions redundant, and the papers got their story.

The Giggs affair was a big story because it was counter to his public image.  Was it in the public interest to know about him playing away?  probably not, but it was almost certainly in the interests of his sponsors to know that there was a risk to their image and investment.  The story was being concealed.  Even though every professional journalist would have known the details of the story through the court papers, they were prohibited in writing anything about it.

I suspect that the original

Which brings us onto …

Phone Hacking

This is a scandal that’s been running for some time.  The News of the World – essentially the rag that soaks up tramp’s piss in a city gutter – have always gone to great lengths in order to get a story.  While the image of a grubby little pervert going through a bin is an invasive one, it is something that news papers have long done to get a story.  Their argument in defence of this would be that it isn’t theft because the items are already in the public domain having been discarded.

The phone hacking scandal was all about accessing people’s private voice mail in an attempt to find out information about them that could be leveraged for a story.  Many of the bigger cases have already come to court, and substantial damages have been awarded to the likes of Max Clifford, Sienna Miller, and Hugh Grant.

People probably had relatively little sympathy about each of the celebrities and politicians who had been attacked previously – for the same reasons as the Ryan Giggs affair:  These were people who already had a public image.

Of course the latest chapter in the story is where it gets particularly nasty.

It turns out that NOTW were illegally accessing the mobile phone of murder victim Millie Dowler to get updates for their coverage.  It seems likely that they did the same to the Soham Murder Victims, and even went as far as to start accessing the private voice mail of the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London.

Why would they do this?

The simple fact is that the News of the World (and other commercial news sources) profit from the evil acts of others.  The more lurid the story, the more inflated the death toll, the greater the horror, the more people  will buy the paper, and the more advertising that will be sold around those stories.  The source of the story is everything, the more detail, the more exclusive the story, the better.

The biggest threat to news paper profit is the internet.  Information that flows freely, and without obvious cost to the user is powerful, and has become an incentive for news papers of all countries to seek out stories by whatever means necessary.  Couple this with a culture of sharing the minutae of daily life that has spread through Facebook and Twitter, and you have a world where information is increasingly difficult for old media to commoditise and control without having a means to access what is private.  To a certain extent, we are all partly responsible for the invasion of privacy that the NOTW have conducted.  Our prurience and appetite for scandal creates the demand.  Our love of gossip and ignorance of personal boundaries, our ignorance about the feelings of others when we pass on salacious snippets is the justification that a journalist needs to invade the privacy of others.

The Hypocrisy of the NOTW

For many years, the News of the World has adopted a posture of moral outrage and the defence of a specific set of values – truth, justice, the defence of the vulnerable – as the core of their mission, however what is clear is that more than any of the victims of their exclusives and scoops, they have been living a lie.  rather than protecting the vulnerable, they have exploited them, rather than adhering to just principals, they have ignored them, and rather than being held to the truth, they have lied repeatedly.

There are no privacy settings off line, but if there were, the bin dipping / phone hacking News of the World would probably be on my blocked list.

 [[UPDATE – 7/7/2011]]

News of the World to Close

According to this story on the BBC website, the last ever edition of the paper will be published this weekend with the News of the world to close.

News of the World to Close
News of the World to Close

A statement from the paper said that the paper had started out as a means of defending injustice and had failed to such an extent that its position in British “journalism” was no longer tenable meaning that the News of the World had to cease publication.

The fact that the paper has been cancelled is likely to be due more to the fact that advertisers were abandoning it wholesale after the latest scandals.   To their credit, they have decided to fill the empty advertising slots with adverts for charities rather than more invasive celebrity baiting and paparazzi photographs of girls sunbathing.

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