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.