News of the World, Judaism and Privacy

Clearly the public outcry over the allegations against the News of the World reflects a deep-seated concern about allegations of undermining of our right to privacy, total disregard for the laws of the land and shock at the lack of decency by hacks who parade as journalists. How would we have felt had our moment of tragedy been hijacked in such a way for a cheap story that may never have made it to print? And as we watch breaking news the allegations just get worse. What lessons will we take away from this affair and will those lessons be long lasting or only skin deep?

I am of the opinion that any newspaper found to have allegations of a disregard for morality and the rule of law to be true, should be held to account. In particular, the editor, with oversight for the content of the paper, should bear the burden of responsibility over and above other journalists with no connection to the alleged practices. If it turns out that the alleged practice was both true and more widespread than first thought, then the closure of the News of the World no matter previous contributions to stories of real public interest, seems increasingly to be the right thing to have happened. Though I am concerned that Murdoch may be turning the paper into a scapegoat along with, no doubt in due course, the former editor (Rebekah Brooks) as a deflection from himself.

It may come as a surprise to readers, but Judaism has something to say on this matter. In Judaism there is a strong stance in support of an individual’s right to privacy – especially when failing to uphold that right is allied with allegedly illegal activity.

Some years ago, I was studying in the Conservative Yeshiva a section of Talmud (a legal text written by the rabbis from around 1500 years ago) which dealt with the extent to which one person could, in that time, enjoy free use of their property (chapter two of Baba Batra). My teacher Rabbi Silverstein took us through some fascinating materials that argue, in general, that as long as person A’s use of their property does not impinge on, or damage, person B’s property and life they are free to do what they want – which makes sense really. But, this does not only apply to damage caused by planting trees and digging pits on the edges of your land. It also includes damages caused as a result of failing to uphold your neighbour’s right to privacy. In fact, this right is so important that you could, theoretically, be forced to pay for building work in order to protect one another’s privacy in a shared courtyard. Later medieval rabbis even suggest excommunication as a fitting punishment for harming the privacy of your fellow.

In a piece of biblical commentary, the rabbis ask, what was it that made the non-Israelite prophet Balaam feel compelled to utter the words of praise for the Israelite camp, (Numbers 24:5) “How goodly are your tents O Jacob and your dwellings O Israel.”? The answer the rabbis offer is that each tent was placed in such a way that no-one could see into the opening of their neighbour’s tent. Thus, the measure of goodness of society, when seeing their encampment as viewed by an outsider, was the degree to which the privacy of each individual was protected.  In Judaism, privacy is a right and an obligation for everyone to protect – something I remember being emphasised in a shiur (lecture) by the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Shmuel Lewis.

How this individual right and obligation interacts with what one might describe as a public interest story is not wholly clear. However, the allegations of a blatant violation of the laws of the land coupled with those allegations of a complete violation of individuals’ privacy for no other reason than the propagation of gossip and tittle-tattle I think would be very dimly viewed and certainly calls for being called to account before the judiciary (even if the medieval punishment of excommunication is not an option).

Finally, it is clearer than ever to me that we should be proud and thankful for a free press which can conduct investigations and print stories such as those alleged against the News of the World – stories of real public interest. It is true that we may not always agree with the different content of the various newspapers, but we cannot fail to be relieved that neither the State nor a single individual holds too much power over the media.

If a feature of a healthy democracy is the health and freedom of its media and the health of society, (from a Jewish perspective) when viewed from afar, can be seen in how the individual right to privacy is upheld, we are justified in being cautious about the expansion of the Murdoch empire (at least until the full facts are brought to light). And I hope that those responsible for the decisions will be duly cautious in their deliberations.

Addendum:

As I prepared to post this I realised that my colleague Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers had also written something related on her blog. You’ll see some overlap and some differences!

Also, I sat watching the news on BBC World and became very aware that the story has pushed a number of other really significant stories down the running order. I don’t really know how we get the balance right on that one and I’m sure my friends in the news and media business are better than me at judging.

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