Watching British MPs grill Rupert and James Murdoch was an interesting example of attempts to find out the truth of what the phone hacking affair at “News of the World”. We could call the process “ethical pathology” because it represents attempts to find out what produced such a blatant and far reaching abuse of people, a clear ethical failure. As is often the case, finding out what went wrong is linked to apportioning responsibility and then sanctions, in other words a legal process. And, as is often the case, the uneasy relationship between ethics and law is being used to confuse the truth.
The questions posed by the MPs were of two types. The first, the majority, represented attempts to find out who knew what and when and who ordered what actions. They were met largely by James Murdoch with a careful strategy of “plausible deniability”. The strategy had a number of elements:
- Constant references to the advice sought and relied upon from “senior legal counsel”, highly specialised experts in a complex discipline where James is merely a seeker and follower of advice. In this way, any questions about ethical responsibility were responded to in the context of legal responsibility, that is what could be proved in a court of law.
- A careful balancing act between ignorance of specific operational detail, of times and places, on the one hand and of asserting overall competence in guiding the more important decisions of the company on the other. In this way, James remains ignorant and therefore not responsible for the criminal and unethical decisions while at the same time attempting to avoid the accusation of incompetence.
- Entered into the discussion with a significant number of people who had resigned already providing implicit acknowledgement of guilt but for whom the Murdochs could no longer speak.
- A careful isolation of “News of the World” from the rest of the company’s activities and structure. It was about 1% of the company’s global interest. So, the implicit claim is that they had axed the rotten limb already, leaving the rest of the tree sound and thriving.
The strategy, despite the fact that the MPs probed and probed, proved largely successful. Personal responsibility could not be clearly imputed: plausible deniability was sustained, chiefly by locating the blame and responsibility on a few individuals, and one newspaper, the “bad apples” that have now been “removed”.
Rupert, at one point, made a fervent statement about the goodness and professionalism of the vast majority of the people working in the company, and that claim should not be dismissed. However, instead of allowing this claim to become part of the “plausible deniability” strategy, in which only a few bad apples are to blame, we should be asking how those good people can be party to doing bad things, in this case (as in others) very bad things. And hence the second type of question which concerned the structure and culture and business model of the organisation. Fortunately, we know a lot more about how organisations can become “bad barrels” that push otherwise good, normal people to behave like “bad apples”. Not only that, but we also know why organisations are sometimes deliberately built into bad barrels, but more of that later.
Social psychologists like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo have studied the powerful forces of institutional and group situations that, if arranged in the “correct” constellation, can push a significant majority of ordinary people to suspend their own normal moral judgement to engage in torture of others. The experiments conducted following Milgram’s ideas are the most replicated experiments in the history of psychology. They consistently show that about 66% of normal people will engage in severe torture in specific circumstances. What does this have to do with the Murdoch companies? At first glance, “News of the World” was engaged in a sort of torture of the parents of that dead girl and of many others whose personal lives were humiliatingly flaunted in public. On another level, what Milgram and Zimbardo discovered can provide insights into how newspapers or any other organisation can push people to do bad things, not just torture, but any suspension of personal morality. Zimbardo has a sort of recipe book for creating a “bad barrel” in this sens. You can find it in this paper.
Why would any organisation do such a thing? Because it was designed to do so by those who build/maintain the organisation. Those people do it when two conditions apply:
- They believe that the outcome they desire not only justifies any means but REQUIRES means ordinarily judged to be bad. Zimbardo’s favourite example is the belief that national security justifies anything.
- They need to maintain “plausible deniability”; given the fact that (according to their judgement) what is needed is wrong, probably also illegal, they must ensure that no order is issued, no agreement is made that can be attributed to the direct action of the “barrel owner”, yet still ensure that the wrong doing occurs.
In other words, serious plausible deniability is NOT the fruit of quickly organising your story, it must be BUILT IN to the organisation and that takes time. The first item in Zimbardo’s recipe for a bad barrel is to start with an ideology that will justify whatever happens later: it has to look good but allow evil, essentially an effective lie. In Murdoch’s case, that ideology might be something like: “The public interest is to achieve greater transparency to ensure a better democracy. The press should investigate and publish what goes on behind closed doors because it is its particular service of the public interest.” Rupert made such a claim during the 3 hour grilling. He claimed that as a result of the efforts of News International newspapers, we have better, more democratic societies.
However, the best lies always look good, otherwise they would not be effective, they would not convince. Is there are lie here? Perhaps surprisingly, the Australian Federal Minister for Privacy, Brendan O’Connor, put his finger on it when talking recently about defending an invasion of privacy for the sake of public interest: “a public interest defence would include exposing corrupt politicians, but that public interest did not mean merely what interested the public.” Many have made the accusation that New International papers go for “titillation” rather than authentic investigative journalism, in other words what interests the public, what we find exciting, a sort of pornography of humiliation, rather than the public interest. The Murdoch press, it can be argued, has built itself on confusing that important distinction. Murdoch press spokespeople continue to argue that they merely supply the public with what the public wants without any thought about the nature of those “wants”.
Once the lie gets going, the next element is to continue to justify it by confusing the difference between ethics and the law. The strong version of this is as described in Zimbardo when people were pushed to do ethically bad things by being convinced that they had a legal responsibility to do so. In a weaker version, they are more likely to do so when they are told, “Don’t worry, it is legal.” When Murdoch papers run stories of dubious truthfulness at best, stories which turn out to be quite false, they fall back on a defense that requires legal proof that would be difficult to provide. An example is the photos that were claimed to show Pauline Hansen posing provocatively. The photos were false, yet the paper claimed not to have known that to be a “fact” until much later. Dubious but not provable to the contrary.
Another element in Zimbardo’s recipe book for making evil barrels is for the leader to begin by being a close, compassionate just person and then by small steps become more distant and more authoritarian. (In Zimbardo’s article, he says, “Chang[ing] the nature of the influence authority from initially “Just” and reasonable to “Unjust” and demanding, even irrational, elicits initial compliance and later confusion, but continued obedience. ” (p. 5)) Robert Fisk describes why he stopped working for the Murdoch Press. At the beginning of his time working for them, he presents Rupert as well as Fisk’s immediate bosses as tolerant and fair, funny, approachable and respectful. Then, as time goes by, the political guidelines become harder, less warranted by the facts and the demands for compliance grew, the authorities in the company became more remote and intransigent.
Another element in Zimbardo’s recipe is: “Present[ing] basic rules to be followed, that seem to make sense prior to their actual use, but then can be arbitrarily used to justify mindless compliance. Make the rules vague and change them as necessary. ” (as above) Robert Fisk’s portrayal would suggest that this element was also in play. Others have also speculated that the dominating culture of New International is one where people are encouraged to do what they think their superior wants without having been told too explicitly what that is, developing a kind of auto-censorship aimed to please. (See Deborah Orr for example… ) Most rumour mills flourish around subjects like how people are rewarded and punished. When that is based on whether they did or did not please the boss, the message is quickly and effectively spread. But they can only thrive while what is required remains vague and changing.
Those who focus on the governance issues in News International (and its Australian child, News Limited) are right to do so. The most important issues go to how the organisation is run, about the carefully tailored intangibles that can move ordinary people to do extraordinarily bad things. The bigger, more important questions behind the Murdoch scandal concern not James’ and Rupert’s responsibilities in the operational details of News of the World but their actions in constructing a business organisation with the power to corrupt (relatively!) good journalists, good policemen, good politicians, good people like us. To be able to do this, we all need much better ideas and language to describe and understand how business organisations affect us as individuals; we need to accept that very few of us have many of the heroic qualities to resist, because very few of us are aware that we need them! This is more important because, at the end of the day Rupert and James will die, but the business can live on and on. Think about it.
A starting point? Just as the bad barrel begins with a twisted ideology, perhaps the way out is to “untwist” it. Transparency is important. Too important to be twisted by lies. A clear light needs to be shone on the internal workings of News International. Unfortunately it does not seem likely that the company itself will be capable of doing so. The company culture, like cultures all around the world, has strong inertia, seemingly impervious to some of the most elemental lessons from this debacle. The Sun, News International’s remaining tabloid is still at it. While Norway seems to be responding to the tragedy of bombing and massacre with measured humanity, “The Sun” splashed out with unsupported accusations that fit its “muslim terrorism everywhere” approach. See it here. So the light will have to be shone by others, but let it be shone on how the company works, not on a witch-hunt for guilty individuals.
What is needed is regulation that aims not so much at avoiding individual wrong-doing but rather bad business models and bad business organisational structures with clearer guidelines about what those are. Despite widespread cynicism, a revamped code of ethics states good ethical principles and what they mean for journalism would help. A good code would identify examples of good responses to common challenges, clear identification and critique of known bad business models. The important thing is not for it just to repeat principles but show how they can be applied. The idea is to enable everyone, every stakeholder a participant. That means that a good code should also be accompanied by proper complaints-handling mechanisms that publish complaints and the actions with which those complaints are handled. That provides clear feedback to all concerned about how ethical principles work as well as a forum for discussion about how to improve them. This could open a place in the public conversation and debate about ethics itself, not just about what the law can enforce. We all need to take some responsibility for good behaviour, publicly as well as privately, and move beyond complaining about the ethics of others.
One way to do that is to be prepared in public to say that unethical activity is unethical and you don’t wish to collaborate with it. The adverstisers which began to boycott News of the World did a fundamental human thing: they said with their feet that they will not collaborate with (some!) ethically wrong behaviour, rather than just limit themselves to what the law can and cannot do.