Privacy Is Evil

A hacking journalist in Britain fights back

The tabloid hacking scandal in Britain is beginning to put a new spin on Janet Malcolm’s neat little thesis on journalistic ethics. Malcolm is the New Yorker writer who began her book, The Journalist and the Murderer, thusly: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Malcolm, a journalist, was pointing her arch finger at the manipulation inherent in the trade: that a reporter lies to a source about her perspective—i.e., that she’s quite in agreement with a source’s own view of himself—in order to get the source to reveal what she really wants. The interesting stuff. The dirt. Or perhaps the truth.

Now along comes Paul McMullan. A decade ago, he was a deputy features editor at the now defunct News of the World, the Rupert Murdoch-owned British tabloid that practiced the sort of journalism Janet Malcolm can only view from her office window. Earlier this week, McMullan testified at the judicial inquiry into News methods. Did he ever.

Sifting through the garbage cans of the rich and famous. Spending a weekend in an unmarked van outside their homes. Pretending to be “Brad the teenage rent boy” to seduce a sexually wayward priest. Leaping into one of the News’ fleet of cars to chase someone deemed worthy of catching. Hacking phones of whomever.

We know about this stuff, because it’s come out over the past few months. But what we haven’t had was a journalist who said, as McMullan did this week, that it was all okay. That, in essence, we need to redraw the lines of what’s everybody’s business and how we get into it. The idea of privacy? Privacy is “evil,” McMullan said. Privacy is for doing nasty things. What a beautiful thing that was, to get somebody addressing the tawdry side of this business without apologizing.

Take phone hacking.

“Phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool, given the sacrifices we make, if all we’re trying to do is get to the truth,” McMullan said. In his case, those sacrifices would include smoking cocaine-bathed joints at the suggestion of knife-bearing drug dealers he was trying to infiltrate, or running for his life in a convent clad only in his briefs when the pedophile priest he was trying to nab in the act got awfully close to it.

McMullan wondered whether “we really want to live in a world where the only people who can do the hacking are MI5 and MI6”—that is, the sanctioned keepers of law and order.

“For a brief period of about 20 years, we have actually lived in a free society where we can hack back,” McMullan said.

Of course, “the truth” he was in pursuit of cast a pretty wide net. For example, he dearly misses the bad old days of jumping into a company car and giving chase to celebrities to snap away at their very existence. Princess Diana’s death in a car wreck escaping the press seemed to squelch that a bit.

Yet the News’ method of chasing down stories was in the public interest, defined by McMullan as what the public is interested in. If we didn’t want to read what he and his colleagues found, however they found it, we wouldn’t. That’s a bit of smoke-and-mirrors moralizing as neat as Janet Malcolm’s.

Of course, Malcolm was having sport with us, with that “morally indefensible” business. It’s inherently impossible to believe that your life’s endeavor is immoral, and then keep right on pursuing it, unless you’re a psychopath. I don’t think Janet Malcolm is a psychopath.

She also wrote: “What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.”

Kinda quaint, isn’t it?

With terms like privacy and decorum and public interest and right to know and public figure in free fall, it’s time for a brand-new discussion. Imagining Janet Malcolm and Paul McMullan in a debate, rolling all this around, might seem a little strange. But one extreme puts heat on the other. And that, maybe anyone would agree, is quite defensible.