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The Death of Privacy

by Hayden Hollingsworth

That obituary was written long ago.  The Alien and Sedition Acts of the late 18th century jumped all over the rights of individuals and freedom of speech by invading their privacy.  Fortunately, common sense soon returned and Thomas Jefferson pardoned all those who had been convicted.  That didn’t end the intrusion of government into private affairs.  The Patriot Act, the most recent incursion, was passed just six weeks after 9/11 and allowed for governmental electronic surveillance with little oversight.

Understandably, this seemed in the minds of some justifiable considering the devastating blow the United States had received.  The constitutionality of many of the provisions is still in question, but Congress has reauthorized the bill with some important amendments a number of times.  When the security of the nation is at stake individual privacy, rightly or wrongly, may be trumped.

Now we are faced with an invasion of privacy where it is not a matter of national security, but selling newspapers for profit.  Rupert Murdoch, the modern-day equivalent of William Randolph Hearst, is scurrying around the world apologizing for the hacking of countless telephones in search of news.

Of course, he was oblivious to all this, but his minions are walking the plank daily.  Rebekah Brooks, head of the Murdoch’s UK operation, resigned less than a week after The News of the World shut down precipitously when their journalistic disregard for individual privacy was brought to light.

The day after the disclosure, I was interested to see that not a word appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.  Why are we not surprised?  When Murdoch acquired Dow Jones & Co and the WSJ he placed Les Hinton as CEO and publisher.  Now Hinton has been tossed overboard.

One hopes that’s because he was in charge of British operations during the alleged invasions, not for continuing his practices on this side of the pond.  There are rumors the American media may have hacked into phones of the 9/11 victims’ families.  A Justice Department investigation is ensuing so we should not be too quick to jump on the Brit’s shenanigans; we may be just as guilty.

None of this is new.  Since the beginning of the republic there has been a constant parade of intrusions.   What is new is the clandestine ease with which it can be done.  Any electronics dealer sells equipment to tap phones, to track the whereabouts of a person’s car, to record an employee’s (or spouse’s) activities anywhere.  Of course, none of this may be legal but following the example of government, and now the media, who cares?

When we look at how privacy invasions have been used in the past we should not be surprised.  Think back to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The alleged infractions of J. Edgar Hoover are well known in the case of MLK and there are countless others.  While there may be no data to support it, President Johnson exempted Hoover from retirement and it was suspected that he had so much dirt on so many people that it would be ruinous if he released it, thus he was allowed to remain as Director of the FBI until his death.  I still wonder why they named the building after him.  Kudos to Senator Harry Reed for attempting to reverse that.

In the July 18 Newsweek an article by Carl Bernstein roundly condemns the activities of The News of the World and Murdoch’s publishing morals.  He does, in a moment of semi-candor, admit that he and Bob Woodward crossed that line, more than once, in their Watergate investigation but they had the authorization of Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, and the legal staff of The Washington Post. That’s a bit disingenuous, to say the least; just the same as Murdoch employees, perhaps, and certainly no justification.

It is a slippery slope to decide where the right of personal privacy ends and the needs of the nation supersede.  One cannot even guess what might have been had Watergate not come to light.  Clearly, tabloid news reporting does not rise to those criteria.  We can hope that American newspapers have avoided that, but given the WSJ resignation, don’t be surprised if the Justice Department inquiry turns up fire beneath the smoke.  At least, we should be glad they are checking into it.

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