What does the phone hacking scandal mean for the political regime and the role of privacy? From the perspective of political philosophy, the scandal raises the unspoken fear of political corruption at the heart of the regime.
Political corruption occurs when an individual uses the state for their personal benefit. When they do this, they are not benefitting the common good. In constitutional terms, core institutions of the country are undermined and weakened in their ability to do their constituted duty. Instead of serving the public good, they are serving the individual or private good. The phone hacking scandal attacks the core institutions of the country. In doing so, it reveals corruption within the institutions designed to protect us.
What does that mean in practice to say that institutions have been corrupted? Press organizations have hired private detectives and investigators to hack into the phones of senior ministers (John Prescott for example) and other senior politicians. In itself, this is troubling as it begins to get into the potential for political blackmail or other forms of coercion that subvert the democratic process. Aristotle and the ancient Greeks understood the threat of a corrupt regime which is why the argued so strongly against it. One could say all of political philosophy, the search for a good political order, is a response to the threat of a corrupt regime.
t the same time, the phone hacking scandal exposes the threat to general privacy from the press using illegal means to gain information. We need a modicum of privacy to have a free society. We need an arena free from the state’s direct supervision. Indirectly the state will be there, in a potential sense, as the law covers us all. However, you are not asking the state if it is ok not to brush your teeth tonight. The Information Commissioner’s Office explored this threat to general privacy before. http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/corporate/research_and_reports/what_price_privacy.pdf
Within this report, they generated a spreadsheet showing all the papers that had hired private investigators. http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/operation_motorman_spreadsheets)
The press help to create an ecology of transparency within a country. If they are complicit in the attack on privacy, they undermine the democratic arena. On its own, the press involvement is troubling. Yet, it is made worse by the alleged complicity of the police, who are (and were) supposed to investigate the allegations of wrongdoing. In other words, the guardians were not guarding the regime. The allegations that are being explored are the following: The police, or at least senior officers, somehow knew the journalists involved, or relied upon similar information, or were encouraged not to investigate. http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2011/01/26/why-did-the-police-not-investigate-phone-hacking-leads/
Further revelations, as well as earlier statements made by News of the World editors, suggest that police officers were paid for information. The allegations raise serious questions about democratic accountability. They also create concerns about the rule of law, and the fundamental political rights of individuals in a decent society. The privacy of individuals is under threat in such a political regime and how it will be protected and sustained will be the ongoing political question.
At one level, someone can say, well this is just politics. After all, the crimes that Nixon was alleged to have committed and those for which he was impeached (the political intimidation, the break-ins, and the monitoring of political opponents) were occurring long before he came to office. One argument was that the only difference between him and LBJ was that Nixon was caught. Nixon fell, in large part, because of the illegal efforts he made to cover his complicity. However, the underlying issue, though, is whether that type of politics is acceptable and whether it leads us to a regime that is based upon politically corrupt practices.
In this situation, the concern is that this goes beyond political opportunism or even politically motivated criminal activity. It goes to the regime’s political ethos. In this scandal, the fear is that politicians may have been unwilling to vote according to his constituents wishes, because of what could be found on his or her mobile phone. In such a system, democracy is being undermined. Worse, if the politician acts only to promote the interests of those who hold information, it undermines the electoral mandate. The scandal that brought down a former Illinois governor, Ryan, was based upon using public office for private gain. He was convicted of profiting from a criminal enterprise that provided Illinois state driving licenses for unqualified drivers in return for payments. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Ryan#Scandals.2C_trial.2C_and_conviction
The concern in the UK is that even regulators were restrained from defending the public good because of the perceived pressure, public or private, they could be put under by the press. If regulators and politicians are potentially compromised by the phone hacking scandal and are unable to investigate it, we are in serious difficulty. A senior public official has made this point. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/sep/11/mps-conflicted-probe-phone-pcc.
If parliament cannot investigate these issues, then who can? If the police are complicit, as suggested by the news that is being reported, then who is able to investigate it? If parliament is cowed by its fear of disclosure what chance does an ordinary citizen have in such a surveillance state? Parliament, interestingly enough, did a very good analysis of this potentiality in 2008. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmhaff/58/58i.pdf
What should worry the average citizen about this scandal is the unspoken political element to it all. If the person at the centre of it, from the News of the World, was at the centre of the successful political campaign and the setting up of the current political administration, serious and focused questions need to be asked. Was the behaviour exhibited within the news organization carried over to political realm? If there is any crossover between the two in methods, sources, and intent, then we face a fundamental question and choice as a society and a political regime. Although these concerns have been allayed by previous reports, one has to wonder what type of ethos is in the heart of the regime that its former director of communications relied upon such methods in their previous role. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199798/cmhansrd/vo980225/debtext/80225-16.htm#80225-16_spnew1
If there is a possibility that security agencies are being used for surveillance or monitoring of political opponents, the democratic mandate is in question. Even if the security services no longer are open to such use, there remains the lingering concern that news organizations might be used as a proxy as a source of information on political opponents. If that is the case, then there has to be a fundamental review of what the political elite and the public understand by decent politics. To put it differently, but directly, from this scandal, we are likely to see an increased demand and need for an enforceable right of privacy. Without such a right, what chance does the average citizen have in trying to seek redress agains the powerful or the political elite? In a demcratic society, the government is to serve the citizen, the public, for the common good not the select interest, the connected, and the individual good of the highest bidder or most powerful.
It appears that we are moving from a salacious scandal of celebrity sexual shenanigans toward the seedy underside of the political realm. Although this is off the headlines for the moment, the political tides are swirling beneath the surface. We have not seen the end of this scandal and UK public life will not be the same after it. In the end, the soul of the regime is at stake. The challenge is whether the public, and the political parties that represent them, can create a system of decent politics free from the hint of blackmail and intimidation present in the techniques and ethos previously on display.
The time has come to revise the social contract to create the opportunity for decent politics to emerge .
- Rupert Murdoch could be questioned in US over phone hacking scandal (telegraph.co.uk)
- Ex-British PM aide Coulson sues News Corp (cbc.ca)
- Carl Bernstein on Rupert Murdoch’s Watergate (guardian.co.uk)
- Report: Murdoch Execs Knew Of Widespread Hacking Years Earlier Than Previously Claimed (huffingtonpost.com)
- Mark Thompson: Met’s order to Guardian part of ‘disturbing trend’ (guardian.co.uk)