Testifying before Parliament today, Paul McMullan, a former deputy features editor at Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid, admitted that he and his colleagues hacked into people’s phones, paid police officers for tips, conducted surveillance operations in unmarked vans outside people’s homes, stole confidential documents, rifled through celebrity garbage cans and posed as “Brad the teenage rent boy” in propositioning a priest. “Phone hacking was a `school yard trick,” he absolved himself. “In 21 years of invading people’s privacy I’ve never actually come across anyone who’s been doing any good. Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things in. Privacy is for paedos; fundamentally nobody else needs it.”
This, of course, is the same excuse law enforcement officials have used for 24-hour CCTV coverage, national identity cards, DNA data bases, and other forms of surveillance: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” But we do all have things to hide, and not all of them rise to level of criminality. Burping, farting, scratching our nether regions, picking our noses, pleasuring ourselves, making rude remarks, cracking thoughtless jokes, drinking milk straight out the carton–well, that would be an inventory of my morning that I wouldn’t care to see immortalized on the world wide web. And there are other activities–lighting up a doobie, stepping out on the missus–that may be immoral or illegal, but really aren’t any business of the public. It’s not the kind of information that the authorities should be accumulating, and it certainly isn’t what journalists should be gathering either.
I’m not about to go all Columbia School of Journalism all over McMullan, but as someone who, as an editor of Spy was party to going through the trash cans of celebrities, and to playing pranks on the rich and powerful that involved identity misrepresentation, I think I’m in a pretty good position to tell McMullan where to get off. Privacy is not the space bad people need to do bad things. Privacy is the space people need to avoid judgmentalism, and it is not up to us who needs it and why. Pedophiles are not entitled to privacy for the obvious reason that they are perpetrating a crime; privacy is a non-factor once another party has been injured. McMullan, of course, and his ilk do not spend very much of their time capturing pedophiles, and spend a far greater portion tracking philandering footballers and amorous starlets and kinky executives. When Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson sprawl their problems on the sidewalk, it seems to me that they are fair game for journalists. But journalists are not the Mutaween, self-appointed enforcers of morality and the law. We don’t get to pursue and harass, and we certainly don’t get to lap the police in being able to probable without probable cause and warrants. That’s just not our job; it’s just not the way we do things. It’s kind of refreshing that McMullan spoke up for himself so unapologetically before the lawmakers, but I am happy to say that if he ever came into any of the publications where I worked and proposed using his usual news gathering techniques , I’m certain we would have unapologetically kicked his ass into the street.