Former News of the World employee asks: What if phone hacking produces positive results?

Bob Satchwell – the Executive Director of the Society of Editors and a former assistant editor at News of the World– asked two thought-provoking questions in a talk at the University of Westminster yesterday, that may be on the minds of many but voiced by few:

  • What if, as a result of Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked, she had been found alive?
  • What if, someone working for a newspaper hacked into a phone, took the evidence to the police and the police said, “Fantastic! How did you do that?”



Satchwell affirmed his view that phone hacking is undoubtedly wrong and a criminal offence. But the main point of his questions is, is it the outcome of an action that makes us decide whether the action is immoral or unethical?

For example, Satchwell said that the Daily Telegraph have been said to have broken the law when exposing the MPs’ expenses scandal. But the newspaper reported that the head of Scotland Yard, Sir Paul Stephenson, ‘said that an investigation was not “appropriate” given the public interest in disclosing abuses of the MPs’ expenses system.’

The way in which we make judgements about moral and ethical actions is shaded by subconscious processes that are beyond our control.

Was it intentional?

The Knobe Effect (or the Side-Effect Effect) is the finding of a renowned study that was developed by Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher, which tested how people think about intentional action.

In the study published in 2003, Knobe presented passersby in Manhattan park with the following scenario: 

The CEO of a company is sitting in his office when his Vice President of Research & Development  comes in and says, ‘We are thinking of starting a new programme. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The CEO responds that he doesn’t care about harming the environment and just wants to make as much profit as possible. The programme is carried out, profits are made and the environment is harmed.

Knobe asked the participants, did the chairman intentionally harm the environment? The majority of respondents – 82 per cent – said that he did.

Knobe then replaced the word ‘harm’ with ‘help’, amending the scenario to say that the new programme will also ‘help’ the environment, the CEO doesn’t care about ‘helping’ the environment and the result is that profits are made and the environment is ‘helped’.

Help or hinder

After changing the scenario, Knobe asked another set of people, did the chairman intentionally help the environment? Contrastingly, only 23 per cent of the participants said ‘yes’ and the majority – 77 per cent – said he did not.

The results show, that when the outcome was negative, the action of the CEO was also judged to be negatively intended. But when the outcome was positive, the CEO’s actions were thought to be unintentional.

There are many explanations of the results. For example, researchers such as Sripada and Konrath suggested that we hone in on the most prominent factors of a situation which influence our judgments. In the case of this scenario, harm to the environment was the aspect that stood out and would affect many people the most, so it shaped the way in which people judged the morality of the action.

In relation to the phone hacking scandal, the study indicates the difficulty we have as human beings to make impartial decisions and judgments on morals and ethics. If the outcome is favoured by the majority of the public, does it then justify the action?

press image

Who are you to judge?

The Leveson Inquiry will begin in November and investigate the details of the Milly Dowler phone hacking scandal and scrutinize press regulation and media standards. But even the objectivity of the inquiry itself is facing criticism.

Paul Dacre, the Editor-in-Chief of Associated Newspapers, said in his speech at the Leveson inquiry that it is “an inquiry, incidentally, that includes a panel of experts who – while honourable, distinguished people – don’t have the faintest clue how mass-selling newspapers operate.”

The Telegraph reported in July that Lord Justice Leveson had gone to two parties in the past year at the home of Matthew Freud, who is married to Elisabeth Murdoch, the daughter of media baron and News International owner, Rupert Murdoch.

The Independent also reported that Downing Street had admitted Prime Minister David Cameron knew about the parties before he selected Leveson to head the inquiry.

Speaking yesterday, The Lord Judge – Lord Chief Justice of England & Wales – said he was responsible for putting Leveson forward and if it’s the wrong decision, he is to blame and not Leveson. He said he has the “utmost confidence” in him.

“The press is a constitutional necessity”

The Lord Judge also asserted: “In a country governed by the rule of law the independence of the press is a constitutional necessity.”

The ultimate decision about the future of press regulation will be in the hands of Parliament. But considering the notorious influence of politics on the press and the relationship of many key MPs with Murdoch – including Cameron himself – are they even in a suitable position to judge? Do we want our access to information determined by politicians?

There is no doubt that the debate about the monitoring of the press and its ethics is absolutely necessary – but who is in the rightful place to adjudicate fairly and with the best interests of the mass of people involved and affected? Well, nobody knows the right answer.

Press freedom is essential and we also have the freedom with which we consume the press. But both are still restrained by the judgments and bias of the journalist and the consumer. Which is why every journalist and every member of the press audience needs to be fully aware of the obscure world behind words.

Satchwell’s question encourages us to look and think beyond the realms of what we see and read. There is no grey area of journalism that is separate from the rest. The whole body of journalism, even the way it is assessed, is grey.

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One thought on “Former News of the World employee asks: What if phone hacking produces positive results?

  1. […] Executive Director of the Society of Editors and a former assistant editor at News of the World – defended phone hacking to a certain extent, by arguing that it could evoke good effects, too. (What if Milly Dowler had […]

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