Opinion: The phone hacking scandal is an attack on civil liberties

Wikipedia defines civil liberties in the following way:

Civil liberties are rights and freedoms that provide an individual specific rights such as the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery and forced labour, the right to liberty and security, right to a fair trial, the right to defend one’s self, the right to privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to marry and have a family.

Traditionally when we think about civil liberties we think about how freedom can be taken away from the individual by the state.

So what are we to make about the current phone hacking scandal? It is not the state that is responsible for hacking people’s phones and then making public conversations that are intended to be private to millions of people. It is of course News International, a private corporation motivated by the desire to sell newspapers and make a larger profit.

They know that the more embarrassing the revelations, the more they can humiliate their intended victim, the more newspapers they can sell. This is a shocking violation of civil liberties.

The style of management of News International is utterly ruthless and therefore illiberal. In this it has something in common with what is currently the most important role model in corporate management today, Sir Alan Sugar. I am not suggesting that Alan Sugar has ever broken the law, but in all other respects it is clear that the drive for profits means everything. Anything or anyone who gets in the way of maximising profits has to be taken out. Even if those profits are short term gains that obscure long term difficulties that might lie ahead, no one is meant to think about that.

It is often the case that to be ruthless means to break the law. It is not just News International, consider also Conrad Black and Robert Maxwell. The problem is that if you start losing sales to a competitor who is breaking the law, then to win back those sales then you have to do likewise. What else can you do? Of course if you break the law you do not tell anyone, so it is hard to know who else in the media world is breaking the law, but it would be very surprising if some of the other papers are not also getting rid of the evidence at this moment in time.

The same issues cropped up in the banking sector. Bankers were motivated by big bonuses to maximise short term profit regardless of the long term consequences of what they were doing. Tragically it is other people who are losing their jobs and having their benefits cuts who are paying the price for that.

This of course raises questions about capitalism. It is not surprising that groups like UK Uncut are attracted to a Marxist analysis of what is wrong with capitalism today. Marxism of course is a nice idea in theory but does not work in practice. You do not have to like capitalism – and I do not like it myself – to recognise that it is the only viable economic system. However it comes in different varieties and as Liberals we have to calibrate a relationship between the state and to capital that results in modus operandi that is closest to our liberal values.

Given the failure of light touch regulation in both banking and now the media it is clear that the state has to be more interventionist and have the resources to do so to prevent abuses. There may be better alternatives, but to crudely reduce of the role of the state in itself would be an absurd response to what has happened as in time the same mistakes will be repeated.

Not all companies follow the Alan Sugar school of management. There is a distinction to be made between enlightened self interest and naked self interest. Sometimes the pursuit of profit is in the public interest and there are many companies that can happily focus on that and not have to pressure staff into breaking the law.

What we have to recognise is that the economy is a complicated system and it is often wrong to apply universal rules to all sectors. The current penchant for marketising public services seems to fall into that trap and Liberal Democrats need to watch out that they do not get damaged by supporting reckless Tory policies for which we will get the blame when things go wrong, as they will.

In other words “Liberalism” is not an economic ideology. Liberalism does not equal free market capitalism or state socialism. As Liberals we want an economic system that produces wealth which can fund decent public services. We also want an economic system that is ecologically sustainable and is non-exploitive in relationship to the workforce. People should not be expected to work long hours and neglect their relationships and families, or get paid so little that they cannot afford the basics in life, or have their health put at risk by bad working conditions, or be stressed out by an authoritarian management style.

Instead we want a democratic form of management and industrial democracy, with worker participation over the decisions that affect them. If socialism could fit that criteria, it would deserve to be called liberalism. But in reality, whether we are Tory, Lib Dem or Labour, we are looking at an economy with both a public and a private sector to varying degrees. Whenever I am asked about socialism I say tell me what you mean and I will tell you if I agree with it.

We have a long way to travel to achieve what I would call a Social Liberal economy. We are in coalition with a party that does not share our vision. Indeed not all Liberal Democrats will share this vision. And we are in competition with countries which seek to be more competitive who wish to exploit the short term advantages for profit-making from light touch or no touch regulation, that will exploit workers and damage the environment. Otherwise known as the race to the bottom. We cannot compete with that whether we want to or not.

The narrative of the Left on the Liberal Democrats is that because of what they see as the “Orange Book” ideology, we are really no different to the Tories. Liberal Democrats need to make the case for putting values such as civil liberties, worker participation and ecological sustainability ahead of economic dogma if we want to show that they are wrong. I do not think the party leadership has done a good job on that so far.

Geoff Payne is events organiser for Hackney Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Well said.

  • Civil Liberties? I thought LibDems had forgotten about those, especially considering the LibDems in Westminster support the DWP’s plan to allow “ex-police” and “ex-military” to enter and search benefit claimants’ houses if they have a “suspicion” about said peoples’ claims.

  • Karren Brady 18th Jul '11 - 7:34pm

    I think that’s Lord Sugar to you sunshine.

  • It’s strange, a few weeks ago on here I was told in no uncertain terms that privacy was nothing, and that the media’s pursuit of CTB was all entirely of a piece with a need for openness, and it was entirely legit for MPs to disregard concerns about privacy in cases where the media wanted to publish.

    With respect Mr Payne, you are looking at this too hard. We – society – or at least a preponderance of it have decided that privacy does not matter. We sluice details of our lives, and those of others onto facebook. We lap up stories in the press about celebrity private lives. We demand background checks on those who come into contact with us and our family, the ludicrous, ‘Calre’s Law,’ being the latest monstrosity. We turn FoI into a personal partizan witch-hunt. Internet sites make our home addresses freely available and no one bats an eyelid. Is it really a shock that the media declares us all targets?

    We are getting the media we deserve, nothing more, nothing less.

    Until we get some idea of privacy on its own terms – not as a part of some hazy civil liberty debate – and what it means we will just go around in circles here. I want to keep myself to myself, simple as that – there is no question of societal management here, my business is my own,

  • Something seems to have snapped in this discussion of the semantics of “ruthlessness”. How is stopping a child from running into traffic “ruthless”? “Ruthless” means almost the same as “pitiless”, you know…

  • “Traditionally when we think about civil liberties we think about how freedom can be taken away from the individual by the state.”

    That is because when we talk about things being taken away from individuals by someone other than the state, we are talking about crimes. Theft, kidnapping, assault, and so on.

    Frankly, I think there is something more than a little ridiculous, not to mention orwellian, in the idea of restricting the press in defense of “civil liberties”.

    This is a civil liberties issue: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/8544025/The-real-scandal-hidden-by-gags-is-what-goes-on-in-family-courts.html

    Newspapers spying on important people is not. As a matter of fact, spying on important people is a pretty good definition of investigative journalism.

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