Tuesday, July 12, 2011

News International and the Browns

The Guardian's front page story today is about News International's systematic and comprehensive targeting of the Brown family in the years they were resident in Downing Street.

NotW journalist on the BBC's Newsnight last week: "what better source of uh getting the truth is to listen to someone's messages". Ignore the grammatical slip. The sheer casualness of his perspective is notable - I've included the video clip below so you can make your own judgment (the quote comes about 10 seconds in). He actually seems to live in a universe where he sees nothing wrong with kind of nefarious "news" gathering activities that newspaper (and, little doubt, others as the 2005 ICO report, What Price Privacy Now makes clear) engaged in.

Contrast NotW-ville with what the European Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinix, said in a speech last week at the University of Edinburgh, on the (different but related) subject of online behavioural advertising.
"Before 1995, the confidentiality of communications was a widely practiced rule. Interception or monitoring of communication was only allowed under strict conditions, subject to a series of safeguards."
Unfortunately now it seems confidentiality of communications is a widely ignored rule. Interception or monitoring of communication is commonplace on and offline.

Contrast NotW-ville also with the shock generated over 50 years ago by the illegal wiretapping of a phone conversation between a UK barrister Patrick Marriman and his client, a known and self confessed criminal, Billy Hill. (See the Pathé News clip from 1957, http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=33047)

Now return to NotWville in News International County which also houses neighbouring Sunville, from where in October 2006, Mayor Brooks contacts the Browns to say she has obtained details from the medical file of their four-month-old son, Fraser, which revealed his cystic fibrosis. Without even touching on the ethical issues here it would seem that the very least breach of legal protocol involved in Ms Brooks obtaining such confidential medical details would have been a contravention of the Data Protection Act; though Mr Brown's adviser, David Muir, speculates in the Guardian that "it was obtained by what appeared to be illegal methods." And yet it gets worse.  According to Marina Hyde, also in the Guardian today:
"I've been speaking to a source close to Gordon Brown at the time of the story, who recalls that it was served up with a chaser of threat.
"Gordon insisted - despite a heavy brow-beating from Rebekah - that he was not willing to let his son's medical condition be the stuff of a Sun exclusive," recalls this source. "So he put out a statement on PA to spike their scoop and make clear that despite his condition, Fraser was fit and healthy. The Sun were utterly furious, and Brown's communications team were told that if Gordon wanted to get into No10, he needed to learn that was not how things were done."
Yes, how DARE the then-chancellor refuse to accept that his child's health was not technically a commercial Murdoch property? I'd like to tell you there's a sick bag located in the rear pocket of the seat in front of you. But I'm afraid you're on your own."
I'd like to be able to say this is unbelievable, a blip, an outlier. But sadly it is all too believable and "normal" for the tabloid press. Sadly too, as a victim, Mr Brown was complicit in facilitating this social, media, market and political normalisation of deviance that not only accepts but approves of invasion of privacy as a virtue.  One of the mantras of Blair/Brown Nu Labour was "nothing to hide nothing to fear". An unethical press is just one of the malevolent, emergent ecosystems that springs from that nasty political game and society's parallel and negligent lack of attention to awareness of, respect for and the need to protect and defend personal privacy in our leaky information age.