Tom Streithorst applies Jane Jacobs’s theory of guardian and commercial morality to the phone hacking scandal.by Tom Streithorst / July 27, 2012 / Leave a comment
Tapping the phone of grieving parents just so you can titillate your readers is deeply reprehensible. And anything that reduces the power of Rupert Murdoch cannot be a bad thing. That said, I feel the sanctimony about the phone hacking scandal is a tad misplaced. Journalists always sneak around, have to dissimulate a bit to get closer to the truth. Had phone hacking had a worthier goal than satisfying the prurient interests of readers, it might still have been criminal but it would have been a lot less creepy. Let me explain my reasoning, by introducing Jane Jacobs’s theory of guardian and commercial morality.
Jacobs noticed that behaviour considered praiseworthy in some circumstances is criminal in others. A spy who sells secrets to foreigners is a traitor, a businessman who trades with them, savvy. A businessman should be open and transparent in his dealings while a soldier can deceive in order to fulfil his mission. Fooling the Germans into thinking D Day would begin with a landing in Calais is heroic. Creating power shortages in California in order to boost your trading profits is criminal.
Humans, Jacobs explained, have two ways of making a living, trading and taking—so the morality of a shopkeeper needs to be different from that of Junker on the Prussian General Staff. The guardian morality probably originated in hunting bands and has evolved to serve the requirements of policemen, soldiers, and government officials. Traders and businessmen require a very different ethos. I suspect the reason the Jains, an incredibly pacifistic religion, have flourished for thousands of years as traders in India is because their business partners have reason to be confident a Jain would never pull out his weapon and rob them after money has changed hands.
Jacobs codified these observations to distinguish what she called the commercial and the guardian syndromes, each with 14 complementary precepts. While traders must shun force, government officials should shun trading. Traders need to come to voluntary agreements with strangers, but guardians should be loyal to their own. A businessman should be industrious, always looking for work but a fireman shouldn’t be setting fires to give himself something to do. We don’t want a businessman to use a gun to steal back his wares. Nor do we want a politician to sell his services to the highest bidder.
I have worked most of my life in television news and when I first read Jacob’s Systems of Survival, I recognised that journalism adheres more to the guardian than the commercial morality, which, I think, is why I am more comfortable hanging out with soldiers than with salesmen. In the news business we regularly “deceive for the sake of the task.” I can’t count the times I have told security guards, “No, don’t worry, I won’t turn the camera on.” Sitting around the bar after a day’s work, we brag to each other about how we bamboozled someone in order to get the story.
Let us imagine Murdoch’s minions had hacked phones in order to discover Tony Blair’s motivation in helping America invade Iraq. Or if the News of the World had hacked the phones of Barclay’s LIBOR traders and revealed their manipulations of the benchmark rate. This would have been admirable, worthy of a feature film like All the President’s Men. Instead, of course, phone hacking merely informed readers of the tedious activities of minor royals, the love lives of B-list celebrities, and worst of all the pain of grieving parents.
Jacobs says each morality functions best when it stays in its own sector. It is knitting the two that leads to problems. Giving salesmen quotas boosts their productivity but giving policemen quotas (a commercial innovation) gets the innocent thrown in jail. Jacobs uses this peril of interlacing the two moralities to explain why in both early modern Europe and feudal Japan, having even one grandparent in trade disqualified one from becoming noble, a class imbued with the guardian notions of hierarchy, obedience, and force. You wouldn’t want a noble, upon whose loyalty the Shogun relies, to know too much about selling.
I think this observation has relevance to the phone hacking scandal. Murdoch’s papers used phone hacking for deeply commercial reasons. The public has no need to know the details of Hugh Grant’s love life. The News of the World dissimulated merely to acquire readers. I suggest it is not the devious means that is reprehensible, but their use for commercial motive. Had phone hacking been used to discover government or financial misconduct, had it revealed something in the public interest (instead of merely something the public was interested in) perhaps it would not fill us with repugnance.