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The News of the World debased the national conversation. It should not be missed by anyone

Its gossip stories invaded people’s privacy and were never justified by the public interest

By on Monday, 11 July 2011

The last edition of the News of the World yesterday: thank you and good riddance (PA photo)

The last edition of the News of the World yesterday: thank you and good riddance (PA photo)

It is an awful long time ago now, but I remember as a child preparing myself to go to confession using a list of questions in my prayer book; one asked whether I had read other people’s letters. It would not have occurred to me then, and it does not occur to me now, to think that reading other people’s correspondence was anything but sinful. I think few would dispute this – hence the widespread revulsion over the revelations about phone hacking at the now defunct News of the World. Phone hacking is the modern equivalent of reading other people’s letters.

But why is phone hacking, or reading others’ letters, a sin?

First of all it is stealing someone else’s property, in this case their intellectual property. If someone sends you a letter or leaves you a phone message, that belongs to you. You can freely pass it on to someone else, but it should not be taken from you without your consent. Thus phone hacking is a species of theft.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, phone hacking represents an invasion of privacy; what we say over the phone, and the contents of our address books, is not intended for public consumption. Invasion of privacy is a serious assault on the dignity of the person, because it opens them up to shame, ridicule and embarrassment. Invasion of privacy is also an offence against natural law, because some things, by their very nature, are meant to be private: intimate details of your sexual life, for example, or matters to do with your financial affairs.

Given the above, all of which I think cannot be seriously disputed by anyone, we are faced with potentially serious consequences. Listening to gossip, particularly the sort that lessens a person’s standing in the community, is a sin. Publishing gossip in a paper that has a circulation of millions is surely a very serious sin.

But there is the counter-argument, namely that the publication of these details is somehow in the public interest, and this public interest may well justify the methods used to obtain the information.

But how true is that? What public interest was served by knowing that a certain famous footballer was an adulterer? Or that a certain famous actor frequented a prostitute? Some of the people exposed in the pages of the News of the World were more or less unknown before their exposure. True, those unfortunate enough to be exposed in this way were hypocrites, but who are the journalists of the News of the World to uncover hypocrisy? Who are they to judge others and rob them of their good name?

Certain things do need to be exposed, and are the rightful quarry of proper investigative journalism. But these things are generally in the public forum anyway. For example, all the financial arrangements surrounding the Royal Family, which are of legitimate interest to taxpayers, and not per se private or secret. The same goes for the MPs’ expenses saga, once the information was in the public forum.

We have had condemnation of the tabloids before now. At the time of Princess Diana’s death there was talk of boycotting papers that used paparazzi photographs, but not much came of that. The sudden and, from my point of view, unlamented, death of the News of the World represents a form of belated justice for all its victims. It has caused enough pain, and debased the national conversation too long. It has humiliated its targets, and coarsened its readership. This corrupt, corrupting and sinful newspaper should not be missed by anyone.

  • RJ

    Agree. Goodbye and good riddance to the News of the World.

    I fear that the public debate is becoming too focussed on the issue of phone hacking though. Even if that had not occurred, there would still be the issue of the salacious content of the paper and that of the Sun and other papers. That is also corrosive of the public good.

  • http://twitter.com/cogitodexter Cogito Dexter

    I couldn’t agree more.

    And we should be reminded by these events to pay a closer attention to our own short-comings as well. We may not, as individuals, publish newspapers, but we can spread gossip and rumours. As much as the scandal sheet has stopped being published, let us pledge not to repeat such offences on an individual level. 

    The village gossip – the one who’d be known for peering out from behind the net curtains to watch and learn what was private to other people and then to tittle-tattle about it to others – used to be looked down upon. And rightly so. We should remember that.

  • Ratbag

    There are many ways of looking at this.

    Take the so-called celebrities who simply live off the thrill of the publicity chase with their bad behaviour who, later on,moan and whinge about invasion of privacy blah blah blahdee blah. They might say to anyone who gives a Paxo that they are glad to see the back of The News of the World but secretly they’ll miss the notoriety and publicity.

    It’s those who are unintentionally thrust into the public eye because of personal tragedy (e.g. Milly Dowler’s family, the parents of Madeleine McCann) that I feel angry for. Their privacy has been violated for no other reason than to sell papers – nothing remotely relevant in the public interest –  regardless of the pain and suffering caused and when a fine line has been crossed by hacks who have no scruples or conscience.

    It’s all very well to say we are glad to see the back of this sorry excuse for cheap toilet paper but it was bought by millions every week. Millions.

    What does it say about society today? Not much…

    There is the commandment which makes things perfectly clear:
    Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbour.

    One thing I could never, ever understand is why papers like the People, Sunday Mirror and The News of the World were published on a Sunday – the Lord’s day. The Irish paper, The Sunday World, is as bad as the News of the World with its sleaze.

    In the penny catechism, reading bad books was counted as a sin… and I don’t mean badly written, either. I guess newspapers would fit into that category, too.

  • CR

    The reaction of the general public has been quite strong. Murdoch’s people have spied on innocents and corrupted public officials committing criminal offences.  He personally has covered it up within his company and by pressuring politicians and police even if he didn’t instigate it.  I think back to Gerald Ratner who insulted his customers and watched his business go up in smoke. The general public are not fickle, many liked his papers for years but we can set our minds against a man if he makes fools of us.

  • Robert

    Fr Lucie-Smith’s article is a relief to read, especially after the recent and curious attempt by William Oddie to equate the sensus Catholicus with letting Red Rupert the Dirty Digger keep his ill-gotten papal knighthood. I note approvingly that Fr Lucie-Smith actually dares to use such old-fashioned, preconciliar terms as ‘sinful’.

  • David Lindsay

    To give to the poorer classes of society a paper that would suit their means, and to the middle — as well as the rich — a journal which due to its immense circulation would demand their attention.

    So the very first edition of the News of the World declared to be that paper’s mission. In the farewell souvenir edition, it was heartbreakingly easy to trace the decline in the writers’ educational and cultural expectations of their readers. Murdoch is not solely to blame for this. But he is hardly blameless of it, either.

    As the praise for the News of the World from George Orwell on its own final back page indicated, this was a paper of the wider culture of working-class self-improvement underwritten by the full employment that was itself always guaranteed, and very often delivered directly, by central and local government action: the trade unions, the co-operatives, the credit unions, the mutual guarantee societies, the mutual building societies, the Workers’ Educational Association, the Miners’ Lodge Libraries, the pitmen poets, the pitmen painters, the brass and silver bands, the Secondary Moderns (so much better than what has replaced them, turning out millions of economically and politically active, socially and culturally aware people), and so much else destroyed by the most philistine Prime Minister until Blair, who in her time as Education Secretary had closed so many grammar schools that there were not enough left at the end for her record ever to be equalled.

    For the first hundred or more years of its domination of the Sunday market, that domination coincided with a high degree of weekly churchgoing in this country. Its strongly working-class readership must have contained a well above average proportion of what are now called traditional Catholics, but in the days when there was no other kind.

    Well, with no more competition from what the News of the World lately allowed itself to become, why not one or more People’s Papers again, affordably hooking people in with a bit of entertainment in order to educate and inform them on the premise that they deserve nothing less than the human dignity and respect of education and information? Central and local government, the trade unions, the co-operatives, the credit unions, the mutual guarantee societies, the mutual building societies and the Workers’ Educational Association all still exist. Just for a start.

    What are they doing, and what is the Church doing, to give to the poorer classes of society a paper that would suit their means, and to the middle — as well as the rich — a journal which due to its immense circulation would demand their attention?