by Dr Mark Hayes
A Message from a Continuing WTF !!! Moment…
In the equivalent of forests of news print and years of electronic coverage and comment on the continuing and escalating phone hacking scandal, one angle has caught my attention, and kept it.
It started as one of those Shit Eh !!! moments.
My first ABC radio producer, over thirty years ago, told me that good radio grabbed the listener by the ears, cut through the surrounding noise, got and kept their attention, added to their stock of knowledge about their society and world, perhaps entertained them as well. He called this a Shit Eh !!! response from the listener, which he encouraged me, and other broadcasters, to try hard to elicit.
Call it a ‘driveway moment‘, when you’re pulling into the driveway with the wireless in the car burbling away, and the item you’re hearing has so grabbed you that you stop and listen to the end, not getting out of the car and scurrying into the safety of your home until it has ended. We’ve all had them.
On Wednesday evening, February 9, 2011, ABC Radio’s PM programme ran an interview by presenter, Mark Colvin, with Mary Ellen Field, an Australian-born, London-based, intellectual property expert who had worked for, among others, Elle McPherson.
Dunno why, but, when I heard this interview, I had a dining room, kitchen, Shit Eh !!! moment.
Normally, I couldn’t care less about the activities of celebrities, super-models, outstandingly performing or wholly mal-functioning sports stars, drug peddlers, race track identities, members of the Royal Family, and the like. I admit to a certain gratuitous schadenfreude when I hear tales of once formerly high flying business executives or politicians at whose activities we were once all but required to gasp in amazement, and who we were all but required to emulate because [cue, Enron] ‘these guys and gals are the smartest folks in the room’.
The case of Ms Field sliced through my disdainful disinterest because it hit a couple of my mental buttons.
PM again visited the story on April 14, 2011, interviewing Mark Lewis, the lawyer now also representing the Dowler family, whose murdered daughter’s phone was hacked, and some messages erased, before her body was found.
It was probably the revelation of this hacking that irrevocably escalated the story beyond even the Murdoch’s legendary capacity and power to control. After all, it’s not even every other target of the phone hackers at NotW who have been personally visited and apologized to by Rupert Murdoch himself.
I hate the word ‘revelation’ when used in news stories, and severely deter my students from using it, because so few news stories are genuine, almost ‘Word from God’, revelations, but the stories about Millie Dowler’s phone being hacked do deserve being described as ‘revelations’, major stories which tip a much larger controversy into having even greater significance and impact.
The Guardian’s Nick Davies will be remembered along with Woodward and Bernstein as one of the true heroes of journalism. The Columbia Journalism Review describes the phone hacking revelations as a ‘Triumph of Investigative Reporting‘.
Carl Bernstein, on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast show for July 19, repeated his view, first aired the week before, that this continuing scandal was equivalent to Watergate itself, particularly as the British police continue to lose senior officers, resigning over the police’s manifold failures to properly investigate the phone hackings, the police’s almost incestuously symbiotic relations with the press, particularly, but not exclusively, News Corp’s outlets, and similarly incestuous relations between past and current British governments.
(I also detest the appellation of the word ‘-gate’ to just about every damn scandal, almost all of which never even remotely come close to the magnitude or impact of the original Watergate caper. But if Carl Bernstein thinks that the phone hacking caper is in that very rare league… well, let’s see if he’s right…)
Mr Bernstein mentioned a story published by the New York Times on July 17, which examined how News Corp has responded to earlier controversies, largely in the USA. (This might not be the specific story Mr Bernstein had in mind. Please correct me if it isn’t, but I’m pretty sure it is.)
Cutting a long, very complicated, and continuing story very short – it’s well worth listening to the interviews and reading the transcripts to which I link above, and then coming back for my take on it all, so far –
In 2005, information which could only have come from mobile phone messages between Ms McPherson and Ms Field starting appearing in The News of the World, largely to do with Ms McPherson’s private life. Ms McPherson sacked Ms Field, accusing her of leaking her private information to the press, but not before having her sent to a US alcoholics rehabilitation clinic, having convinced Ms Field that she was a drunk. ‘The Word’ was also quietly put about how Ms Field was disloyal and leaked client’s secrets to the media. Her business folded, and her health seriously declined to the point where she had to have major heart surgery and a pacemaker installed.
As the first solid details of the phone hacking scandal started appearing, round one, and James Murdoch was signing six figure cheques in compensation and ‘hush money’ [legal confidentiality clauses] to high profile hacking targets it became clear that Ms Field’s and Ms McPherson’s phones had been hacked.
Ms Field was wholly innocent. Had never, ever, leaked any client’s details to the press, or anybody else.
But, since being sacked by Ms McPherson, Ms Field has never worked full-time again. She’s untouchable, unemployable, not to be even seen near in public or polite society. She might as well have a chronic, highly smelly, possibly contagious, skin condition.
Ms McPherson has never called her former employee to apologize, reinstate her, recompense her for earnings lost and reputational damage, and put the whole unfair situation right. She’s worth more than a couple of the world’s smallest countries. Court documents claim Ms McPherson was paid as much as £800,000 in secret compensation by News Corp.
Ms Field has been well and truly locked away in the freezer.
Even while listening to the first PM interview, I immediately though of The Trial by Franz Kafka.
It’s now a cliche. I invoked it in the Headline to this Post. Kafkaesque. Describing a senseless, disorienting, and menacing, dangerous, complexity. A man wakes up one morning to find he’s turning into an insect. A man finds he’s being investigated, is suspected, but never finds out who’s investigating him, or for what, but the consequences are ultimately fatal.
One of my favorite movies is the 1962 Orson Welles’ directed version of The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins. Welles once said that this was the best movie he’d ever made, though his brilliant Citizen Kane is very widely regarded as the best movie ever made. Of course, Citizen Kane is a thinly disguised allegory about the rise, power, influence, and fall of the US newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. And didn’t Orson Welles’ career suffer after making Citizen Kane.
(How come the adjective ‘mogul’ is often used to describe major newspaper owners or proprietors? I hate cliches.)
Folding the plight of Ms Field into a couple of my other buttons, whistleblowing and workplace bullying, I see the same general dynamics in play. Add into the mix, issues to do with ‘the surveillance society‘, and stir well.
Whenever I read about or see, or even am told about, a clear case of genuine whistleblower persecution, or an unequivocal case of workplace bullying, I always would ask of the perpetrators, ‘Is this behavior on your part, unleashed against your target(s)’ – never use the word ‘victim’; recipients of such activity have been targeted, and are not victims – ‘absolutely necessary?’
I really do mean absolutely necessary, and I’d want to look at an organization’s Mission Statement, internal rules, regulations, and implementations of legislation against discrimination, protected disclosures, and so on, its Annual Reports, advertising, recruitment statements… How does the clearly documented behaviour of whistleblower persecution or workplace bullying explicitly mesh or cohere with your own Core Values and employee requirements, let alone legally required Occ Health and Safety and related, legislated, standards?
OK, Ms Elle McPherson, or Mr Rupert Murdoch, how does your, or your organization’s proven, documented behaviour in the case of Ms Mary Ellen Field explicitly mesh and cohere with your own, explicit, and expected Core Values, Mission Statements, etc and so forth, and applicable legislated requirements on client and workplace relations? Was what we know you did absolutely necessary?
Like a genuine whistle blower, who discloses corruption or wrongdoing within an organization, and who then gets punished for doing so, if not officially then certainly sub-procedurally (the whispering campaign, subtle or not so subtle workplace bullying or mobbing, quiet defamation around employer’s networks, and so on), and who then gets, eventually, wholly vindicated, Ms Field was initially punished for leaking her employer’s secrets to the media. Or so her then employer thought this is what had occurred.
Ms Field was also bullied by being sent off to a substance abuse rehabilitation clinic on the quite false assumption that she was an alcoholic, and that this was the cause of her appalling lack of judgment in leaking client’s secrets to the media. This has the necessary and associated benefit of further adversely affecting her acuity and clear thinking at precisely the moment in the story when she needed to be extremely clear headed.
She took a couple of weeks to convince the psychologists that she wasn’t an alcoholic but that she had been bullied and was suffering from serious stress.
The bullying continues financially when tactical calculations are done, lawyers reached for, confidentiality clauses signed in metaphorical blood, and legal concrete poured down throats to prevent any kinds of settlement disclosure.
Even after complete vindication, a whistleblower often has real trouble obtaining future employment because by blowing the whistle, they necessarily caused ‘problems‘. If they caused ‘problems‘ for a past employer, they could cause ‘problems’ for a future employer. They might not have a sufficiently ‘flexible‘ attitude. They’re employment poison.
The ‘surveillance society’ enters the picture when the practice of phone hacking itself is considered.
Much of the literature on this topic focuses on official surveillance. Britain has the world’s largest deployment of CCTV cameras, for example. Everywhere one goes in public, one is watched, if not by human beings, then by ever more sophisticated computer systems with pattern and facial recognition software. With the right equipment, digital phone channels are easy to tap, the calls fed into the same kinds of computers used to model global warming or the global financial system, and specific conversations and users tracked, along with the phone’s in-built GPS and tracking software. E-mails are even easier to capture, store, and analyze.
Cross-match all that with your medical, tax, banking, library borrowing, and other official records, and about the only thing they haven’t got on you is actual DNA samples, unless, for entirely legitimate medical reasons, your DNA’s been sampled anyway, so they’ll find those records too.
No need to worry, we are always assured. Privacy laws are in place to protect you, you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, and we are all honorable men and women doing this tedious, disagreeable, work for your own safety.
Problem is, in an officially suspicious world, people like me who don’t even collect speeding or parking fines, except very, very occasionally, who equally only very occasionally avail ourselves of Medicare benefits, who pay our legally required taxes, are polite to customs and immigration officers at international airports, who are so terrified of librarians we never, ever, accrue library fines, and whose library borrowing records demonstrate a consistent pattern which is never interrupted by a sudden spate of borrowings on, say, weaponizing Ebola or neutron flux amplification within a sub-critical plutonium assembly, well, having no or a very low surveillance profile is as suspicious as a routine Blip on all the official surveillance triggers. Everybody’s up to something, so what am I doing, or trying to hide, by apparently behaving myself?
A major concern for scholars and analysts of the surveillance society is the practice of private organizations, like retailers, building up user’s and shopper’s profiles over time, merging that consumer preference data with other private data, such as mobile phone usage – data mining – to further refine the individual consumer’s profile. Bought anything from a major On Line retailer lately, been presented with some recommendations based on your previous purchases, and wondered how they came up with those suggestions? Private companies contracted to provide confidential government services, now outsourced, are also of some concern.
In effect, what the private investigators hired by the journalists already convicted in the phone hacking scandal were doing was illegal data mining, merging that hacked data and information with On the Record materials in their newspaper archives and data bases, and publicly, and freely, available information On Line using Google or Yahoo search engines, plus old-fashioned shoe leather and telephone calling journalism, to produce their stories, ultimately, for the profit of News Corporation’s shareholders.
Of course, some commentators have sought to blame NotW readers in their millions for buying the results of all this, lapping up the salacious crap and thereby encouraging the paper to continue, or the liberal (said with an Andrew Bolt lip snarl) media, like The Guardian, for all this. Unleash John Birmingham and his Blunt Instrument on that line (Go Get ‘Em, Birmo!).
Mary Ellen Field isn’t entirely powerless, of course.
She’s highly articulate, extremely intelligent, if the cut away shots in the ABC TV 7.30 story are anything to go by, she’s still comfortably well off (and that’s no criticism of her or her family; might have been a bit contrived to have her shown lining up at the British equivalent of her local Job Shop to file her fortnightly dole diary, with a UB40 song playing in the background), and she’s obviously well connected, witness a sequence with former Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, with whose family Ms Field’s family have been friends for 45 years (again, not the slightest criticism must adhere here either).
Her lawyer, Mark Lewis, is just the kind of legal rottweiler you’d want on your side when taking on the entire assembled might of News Corporation, wounded though it appears to be.
Once people like her get beyond the bewilderment stage, recover their usually damaged health, reflect over what’s happened to them, and who at least probably did it, or assisted in doing it, they can become extremely determined, indefatigable, to get justice done.
I’ll be following Mary Ellen Field’s story as best I can because, at least for me, it’s a continuing WTF !!! moment.