I am fascinated by the British phone hacking scandal. Jane Jacobs has helped me understand it.
Should police officers be paid per arrest? Most people think this is a bad idea, I imagine, but the larger point (what can we learn from this?) isn’t clear. In Systems of Survival, Jacobs tried to spell out the larger point. She wrote about two sets of moral rules. One set (“guardian syndrome”) applied to warriors, government officials, and religious leaders. It prizes loyalty and obedience, for example. The other set (“commercial syndrome”) applied to merchants. It prizes honesty, avoidance of force, and industriousness, for example. The two syndromes correspond to two ways of making a living: taking and trading. The syndromes reached the form they have today because they worked — different jobs need different rules. When people in one sort of work (e.g., guardian) follow the rules of the other, things turn out badly. Ayn Rand glorified the commercial syndrome. When Alan Greenspan, one of her acolytes, became a governor, he did a poor job.
What about journalists? As a journalistic business becomes more powerful, it becomes more guardian-like. A powerful newspaper isn’t inherently bad; we want a powerful newspaper to keep other powerful institutions (government, large businesses) in check. Murdoch’s News International, of course, has became very powerful. Yet Murdoch newsrooms retained commercial norms, especially an emphasis on selling many copies. Reporters in Murdoch newsrooms were under intense pressure to produce — like policemen paid per arrest. Other journalists, with guardian norms (e.g., at the New York Times), didn’t like the commercial norms of Murdoch newspapers. The mixture of commercial values and guardian power led to the phone hacking scandal. Friends of mine blame Murdoch himself — but commercial norms are not unique to Murdoch. The problem is their mixture with great power.
When newspapers are small, they are not powerful, not guardians, and must adopt commercial norms — they must try to sell more copies or they will be crushed. When a small newspaper becomes large and powerful, however, its norms must change to guardian ones or things will turn out badly. This suggests that the phone-hacking scandal happened because Murdoch became very powerful too fast — too fast for a shift in values to accompany much greater power.