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On the moral merits of hackers and spies

  • September 17th, 2014

This morning’s Fairfax headlines demonstrated the childish naivete of our media “intelligentsia”. We got the astonishing news that New Zealand intelligence assets spied on things going on in foreign countries, including some with which we are friendly. Never mind that the same papers reported it in December last year. I looked in vain for anything in the breathless stream of shock on the front page to show someone somewhere was adult enough to pont out that if our spies were not doing just that, there should be serious sackings until they started doing the necessary.

Ordinary people understand the issue. The hairdressers today, and casual discussion at a dancing class this evening pointed to a dreary lack of journalistic realism as the reason for switching off days ago from the boring radio and TV coverage of the ‘mass surveillance’ claims.

It reminded me of a discussion on Jim Mora’s programme late in June when I ventured a few words on a related topic that really demanded a more full explanation. I argued then that laws protecting privacy are desirable, so that breaches are not routine, but they are mostly of recent invention, they threaten some of the noblest traditions of journalism, and are far less important than rights of free speech. Privacy law should merely ration or reduce breaches to an acceptable level. It should not be so severe or effective as to eliminate the reputation mechanisms, and the exposures of hypocrisy and corruption that are critical to healthy free societies and personal responsibility.

And for similar reasons, active and covert intelligence services are critical to our long term defence against determined enemies, and the avoidance of avoidable war with people who are probably not our enemies, though we are unsure.

My June radio comments were prompted by a long discussion at the office about secrecy, privacy, freedom of speech and phone hacking. I’ve previously worried publicly about the shortsighted journalistic welcome of Leveson proposals, and the recent NZ Parliamentary response to the exposure of Peter Dunne’s peculiar view of his Ministerial duties of confidentiality.

There was strand of opinion in our office that the News International phone hackers were disgraceful, and that was reason enough to support proposals for severe new rules governing the press, so that nothing like that could ever happen again

I see a clear difference between what is illegal, and what is immoral. I really want a media that is rude and unstoppable when it seeks the truth that power wants to hide. I want a media that pieces together people’s trash, that eavesdrops, that encourages leaks, to tells us when prominent people are hypocrites, and say one thing and do another.

I agree the hackers should go to prison. It would not be courage on their part if they did not risk that penalty. And that risk rations the conduct, so that by and large it is not universal. It is like traffic offences. I may speed, perhaps repeatedly, yet agree with the law against speeding. I am not a hypocrite as long as I accept being fined for speeding,

This kind of distinction between what is illegal and what is disgraceful underpins freedom. There is much conduct that should remain regulated only by shame, the sanction of disgrace, not law. There is much conduct that could be noble, but must nevertheless be illegal.  What Edward Snowden did, I regard as both disgraceful and illegal, but nevertheless heroic. Other spying or lawbreaking to get the truth or to spread it, might be both against the law, yet be admired as ethical and courageous and necessary.



“There is much conduct that should remain regulated only by shame, the sanction of disgrace, not law.”

It seems to me that the pool of activities that once invoked shame is shrinking in our cultural environment of moral realitivism. The old rules no longer apply.

We are moving to a culture where the law, and the law alone defines what is acceptable, and what is shameful.

  • Stephen
  • September 18th, 2014
  • 7:11 pm


You are right, and it may be the end of our freedoms and our relative success as a society.

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