Monday, July 4, 2011

New Standards of Turpitude

For those of us who haven’t been following, the Rupert Murdoch empire broke through yet another standard of evil today with fresh revelations in the News of the World phone hacking case. Essentially, the tabloid would hack into the phone messages of various people and use the information gained thereby for various tabloid purposes. Well, that’s what was known before. Now we know they hack into the phones of grieving victims and interfere with police investigations:
The News of the World illegally targeted the missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family in March 2002, interfering with police inquiries into her disappearance, an investigation by the Guardian has established.

Here’s the chain of events: the tabloid hacked into Dowler’s phone to listen to the messages left after her abduction. The problem was that so many people were calling her phone and leaving messages that the mailbox would fill up, denying space for later people to leave messages. So the tabloid deleted the old messages. That’s a problem because the family believed it was Dowler deleting the messages (raising hope that she was still alive), and the police would’ve been interested to listen:
According to one senior source familiar with the Surrey police investigation: "It can happen with abduction murders that the perpetrator will leave messages, asking the missing person to get in touch, as part of their efforts at concealment. We need those messages as evidence. Anybody who destroys that evidence is seriously interfering with the course of a police investigation."

Now, is Rupert Murdoch personally an evil man? It’s hard to say. But it’s easy to say, when looking at the businesses he controls, that his results are nothing to be proud of: you could excuse Fox for being a partisan outlet when this is merely an American tradition; but then again you’d also have to blame Fox for the continuing derangement of the Republican Party. There’s really no excuse available for this phone-hacking business. So it seems to me that, if you were to value the net impact of Rupert Murdoch’s business activities, you’d value it at a net negative, probably a large one. So Murdoch might not be evil, but he’s done a lot of wrong.

This seems to be an increasingly prevalent standard for businessmen these days. Most bankers around the time of the financial crisis were not personally evil, I believe. At the same time they’ve caused millions of people unnecessary suffering and have permanently stunted the growth of this country. In a complex society, where our actions often have consequences far away from our persons, this often happens. The key is to align actions and consequences closely. Culturally, if you have an ethic of greed and personal-orientation, things like pursuing the next story or getting the big bonus assume an outsized importance relative to the far-off person who may or may not get hurt down the road. In terms of accountability, it’s striking how often these people get away with it: according to the Guardian story the police seem to have known the tabloid was hacking mobile phones (though not that they were deleting messages), and let them get along with it. These types of moral compromises only embolden a self-oriented ethic, and end up creating bigger dilemmas for everyone to deal with.

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