The nature of the crime

News of the World last ever edition

News of the World: unconfirmed reports claimed copies were changing hands for as much as £10 on Sunday. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

The world of tabloid journalism in England seems to be imploding around the ears of Rupert Murdoch.  It is a story that is only getting off the ground and has many, many aspects that I do not understand; but we can expect to hear more, lots more. The story zoomed up the scale of importance  when Murdoch announced the 168-year old paper would be shutting down – it had the highest circulation of any paper in Britain; 4.5 million copies of the final edition were reported sold; until then it was mostly a story of sleaze.   Murdoch has never had a sterling reputation – he was frequently of accused of using any form of sleaze to sell papers.  Murdoch never commented on his methods, although he did defend the integrity of his empire and he did continue to add to it.  And like most tabloids Murdoch papers have been sued often of playing loosely with the truth.  Still, his empire persists and grows or was continuing to grow until last week – its latest acquisition is very much in question today.

The News of the World has been accused of using a variety of morally questionable and sometimes out and out illegal methods of gaining information – the most shocking was the hacking charge.  In attempts to get some juicy information, the paper was said to have hacked into email and phone accounts of politicians, law enforcement, criminals and even victims.  For Murdoch the news gets worse daily, now other of his newspapers are being accused of using the same methods and the list of victims of those methods has expanded to the royal family and former prime minister, Gordon Brown.  Murdoch owns a great many media outlets and if this story continues to spread it will reach other countries and may encompass other world leaders.  What will we think if we find that people have been stealing tax returns, listening to private phone calls and reading the personal email of the president of the United States? And if you think that is justified, then how about the personal life former President George Bush?  Or it might be the reporters of events and not the actors, like Rush Limbaugh, Larry King or Oprah – everyone is fair game.

The issue will eventually raise an interesting question, one at the core of our economy; when we offer people financial incentives to produce numbers (more sales, more loans, more hits, more strikes or more of anything), what is to keep the methods within the acceptible standards of our society?   Of course, we know the answers, it is the law or a sense of right and wrong or the standards of any given profession – but is that enough?  As the trial of Roger Clemens, Robert Murdoch (Rupert’s son) and the politicians in Alabama continue it is worth remembering that while the method of the crime may be different,  the incentive to commit the crime was the same.

The case in Alabama concerns legislation to legalize a form of gambling, the people being tried are accused of either offering bribes for voting on the legislation or accepting money for a vote.  Clemens is being tried for perjury, but the underlying crime and the reason for the perjury was winning baseball games and being willing do something illegal or questionable to play baseball better.   We can and will continue to pass addition legislation to control Wall Street bankers, baseball players, lobbyists and newspaper reporters, but we cannot pass a law that changes human nature.  It is part of our basic nature to do our best to win.  It is not a problem we will solve regardless of how many laws we pass or how many people go to jail or indeed how many newspapers stop publishing.


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