When Is It OK To Listen In?


In the wake of the phone hacking scandal, there has been renewed interest not only in the ethics of journalism, but also in workplace ethics in general. After an exhaustive cataloguing of the privacy violations by News Corp, how can we make sense of who is responsible? How can we promote ethics in the workplace? Can we rely on individual codes of practice to protect rights to privacy, or do we need to take a more comprehensive look at ethical behaviour at work?

At some time or another, most of us have engaged in unethical and even illegal surveillance. We’ve read diaries, looked into wallets, read text messages, gone through drawers and listened into phone conversations. And most of us have justified this to ourselves by focusing on our feelings of suspicion, powerlessness or fear. Like News of the World, some of us have justified our privacy invasions with the betrayals we’ve discovered.

Several years ago when I worked as a counsellor in a workplace dominated by men whose job it was to investigate crime, I discovered that for some people and in some workplaces, surveillance is a habit, a way of being in the world where everyone is under suspicion. Where the belief is that privacy is for those who have something to hide.

Whenever we allow ourselves to invade another’s privacy we are functioning without intact personal boundaries and acting as a perpetrator violating the integrity of another. We may spy because we feel vulnerable. Someone else may have the power to harm us and we may believe that it’s our right to know what they’re doing. But however vulnerable we may be, this invasion is still a violation.

Personal boundary violations are not far removed from the phone hacking scandal, because both rely on prioritising individual self-interest. If I give myself the right to spy, I’m acting as if I have a right to information more than you have a right to your own private life. This creates a situation where the argument becomes about my rights versus yours, rather than a wider exploration of the ethics of surveillance in general. This confusion of the rights of the individual to privacy and the ethics of surveillance itself is a problem when it comes to responding to boundary violations in the workplace.

One response to the problem of privacy violations at work is to increase legislation in this area, as many have demanded. However one of the difficulties with legislation and workplace codes of conduct in the area of personal privacy is that the arguments for the public’s right to know, for policing and surveillance can be so compelling, particularly in situations where the public interest or individual people are vulnerable to abuse.

If instead we take the question of privacy out of a rule-based framework, then we can explore workplace ethics from the standpoint of individual and collective responsibility. This doesn’t mean we need to abandon legislation, but rather that we need more than rules when we are looking to increase integrity.

Real personal and social integrity is diametrically opposed to a sense of ownership. When I am busy cataloguing what is mine, I have usually moved out of integrity. I have lost my sense of inter-relationship, and imagined myself somehow separate from others. I’ve abandoned my understanding of the impact of my behaviour.

An example of this: I’ve recently had to divide up and share the household stuff after a separation. In the awful process of deciding what is mine and what is his after over two decades together, any sense of ownership borders on the ridiculous. What really is mine? Any rules here are simply arbitrary. Helpful guidelines perhaps, but no substitute for an ongoing sense of relationship, care and responsibility. If I were to come from a place of ownership, then in that moment I am denying that what I take for me is taken from him.

In much the same way, the idea that there can be ethical journalism in a climate of outrageously weighted media ownership, and the exclusive ownership of individual stories, is terribly misleading. The minute there is ownership that excludes participation and silences debate, then there is unethical practice.

Wendy Bacon recently described this well when she drew the distinction between freedom of the press and freedom of communication. That is: the difference between simply supporting the ideal of being able to speak and write freely and a real commitment to the protection and valuing of wide social access to communication.

One of the hallmarks of ethically grounded workplaces is that there are varied pathways for communication within the organisation. All the people in the workplace are able to make themselves heard and are aware of the best ways to do so. This valuing of open and non-hierarchical communication is the fundamental beginning of creating an ethical culture. This not only increases responsibility, it also does away with the defence of ignorance.

Whenever I say "I didn’t know" as a defence in the context of any relationship, what I’m really saying is that I was disconnected — from myself perhaps, and definitely from you and from others. To focus on Murdoch’s knowledge of individual privacy violations and bribery by his employees is to miss the point that as leaders, in whatever area, we are particularly responsible for the creation of a culture and for the way individuals believe they can behave within it.

So ignorance in this context is not a defence but an abdication of responsibility. When we focus solely on rules and codes, we leave a loophole for ignorance. If we really didn’t know, how were we keeping ourselves from the truth?

What Murdoch has done — and for which he has been widely criticised — is to implement a particular media culture based on his own personal views, in each of the organisations he has acquired. It is the creation and enforcement of this culture, rather than the individual responsibility or knowledge of the actions of his staff members, that was so inherently destructive and has led to such widespread abuses of power.

This culture has been enormously difficult to challenge because of his domination of current media ownership and because the only way to challenge individualism is with an acceptance and fostering of collective responsibility. Not a simple task.

What Murdoch has done is to create a community, albeit a corrupt one. What is required to defeat this corruption and to foster ethical practice is also community. And an end to the idea of getting the story first and an understanding that getting the story right involves many voices.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.


Like this article? Register as a New Matilda user here. It’s free! We’ll send you a bi-weekly email keeping you up to date with new stories on the site. And you can like New Matilda on Facebook here.

Want more independent media? New Matilda stays online thanks to reader donations. To become a financial supporter, click here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.