Phone Hacking and Jane Jacobs

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.











7 Replies to “Phone Hacking and Jane Jacobs”

  1. Seth, I think you got it exactly backwards.

    In the past, journalism felt the need to be guardians – they felt a responsibility to the public, which they took seriously. News had to be “fit to print” and all that.

    This is evidence that the transition *is* complete. They are fully commercial enterprises doing whatever it takes to sell a story.

    1. “in the past journalism felt the need to be guardians”. Many journalists still feel this need. Maybe the majority do. If you go back to the very beginning of newspapers, when they had no power at all, I think you will find a more commercial attitude. The term “yellow press” comes from the 1890s and describes a more commercial attitude. It arose during circulation wars. Even by then journalists had become enough guardian-like to condemn such behavior.

  2. This is thought provoking, but I’m not sure i see how ‘speed of acquiring power’ could be the independent variable determining which syndrome emerges. What forces are different if power is acquired slowly?

    I think that one problem (not of your analysis – of modern business) is a failure to recognize the limits of using price to regulate action. For example the reason it’s bad to pay police per-arrest, is that the value of of the arrest is determined by information only available much later, and it can be negative so there is no way to discount the price based on quality without looking at the later consequences of each arrest.

    Paying by arrest quality – i.e. the guilt to innocence ratio creates an even worse incentive; for police to distort the evidence to improve the ratio. Furthermore, there is no disincentive against collusion.

    A nightmare scenario, yet such a police force might well be very financially successful, especially if paid directly by consumers of its services. Imagine investing in such a business – you put up money for police stations, guns and batons and handcuffs etc. You hire some ‘officers’, you charge victims for ‘bringing perpetrators to justice’, and you pay the officers a percentage.

    The point here is that profit making organizations can be created that have the semblance of other institutions but are devoid of the value those institutions were intended to provide.

    The belief that we can attach a monetary value to anything we want to promote is simply a delusion. Unfortunately, acknowledging this means recognizing that we have less control than we would like, and leads to political disadvantage compared to those who deny it.

  3. I don’t doubt the existence of journalists who want primaily to serve as guardians. I’m just not certain that our system is going to keep allocating enough resources to them to enable them to practice. They are competing against organizations who have a greater flexibility in how they acquire those resources and so are at a disadvantage.

  4. The era of the “big newspaper” is gone, because the era of the newspaper is gone. Every reader has access to thousands of news outlets every day, all vying for their attention. News doesn’t come once a day now, it comes every second.

    In order to compete in this world, news outlets need a constant stream of splashy short headlines in order to attract “clicks” (see Quality, depth and accuracy of the underlying journalism is a distant tertiary priority.

    I think the Murdoch scandal is an example of an “old fashioned” newspaper getting more and more desperate to stay competitive and resorting to riskier and riskier tactics to find stories. I am sure they lost all of their what we used to call legit journalists long ago, and were staffed with paparazzi with a short attention span.

    I hope the New York Times survives because I prefer to read thoughtful, in-depth stories, but I am not sure how they will.

  5. Great post, Seth.

    I’m not sure it’s just ‘speed’ though — I think it’s a matter of generations. Though Rupert Murdoch did inherit his father’s firm, he did “cut his teeth” on Fleet Street in the fifties. He absorbed the competitive ethos and retained it sixty years later when he had (arguably) become one of the most powerful people in the world. Most newspapers would have iterated through one or more generations by that point.

    Harrison Otis, founder of the LA Times, profited greatly from buying up land in the San Fernando Valley while his paper stampeded readers into thinking that L.A. was running out of water (thus driving support of the aquaduct that would turn the Owens valley into a desert.) Subsequent generations of Times owners — notably the Chandler family — were no longer pirates but very much staid guardians.

    Otis & Mulholland stole the money that the Chandlers would then use to build opera houses.

  6. Hi Seth,

    You have made an excellent point in connecting the phone-hacking scandal and jane jacob’s systems of survival, however i have interpreted slightly differently. Whilst Jacobs agrees that newspapers have become the guardians of guardians I believe she would interpret the phone-hacking as a form of what she termed ‘monstrous hybrids’. Not only did the newspapers break the commercial syndrome precepts of ‘respect contracts’ and ‘be honest’ to name a few, but they inadvisedly adopted a precept from the guardian syndrome; ‘Deceive for the sake of the task’.

    Following Jacobs’ agrument, I believe this picking of the precepts from the different syndromes, which Jacobs and Plato state should never happen, created the ‘monstrous hybrid’ that is the News of the World phone-hacking.

    Ironically, this was then reported by other newspapers, adopting the guardian role, aiming to protect the public, all very confusing!

    Please comment as i am actually writing an essay on this very book as part of my Masters Degreeand warmly welcome any criticism or comments you have about what i have said 🙂

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