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“Rogue” members of an org. almost never are really rogues. Their rogue modus operandi almost always reflects the organization’s modus operandi, or ethos.

I jotted that note to myself back in early June, after reading a Vanity Fair story about the British newspaper phone hacking scandal while on a flight home to Chicago from Paris. The story quoted Andy Coulson, former editor of the recently shuttered News of the World, describing the first case in the scandal—reporter Clive Goodman’s and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire’s 2006 convictions for hacking voice-mail messages of the royal household—as the work of a “rogue reporter.”

Goodman, it turns out, was anything but a rogue. His actions—for which he served a brief term in prison—appear to have been all too typical of the way things were done at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World and, quite possibly, at other Murdoch papers as well. Goodman, it seems, was just following his paper’s standard operating procedure when he hacked into the phones of members of the royal family.

No reporter, I always tell my ethics classes, ever publishes a story on his or her own. Publication is always a cooperative activity—it involves decisions by reporters, editors and an entire quality-control apparatus. When there is a screwup, it is the organization that screws up. And even in cases of true “rogue reporters,” like Jayson Blair or Judith Miller at The New York Times, the organization is ultimately responsible, because the quality control process obviously broke down and failed to catch their falsehoods, exaggerations and departures from standards.

At the most basic level, there’s nothing really new about what the News of the World was doing: acquiring personal information and communications and publishing it for profit. And it has been done electronically since the telegraph and the party-line.

But the existence now of the cellphone, text-messaging and other digital devices allowed the paper to do this on an industrial scale and with an intrusiveness that was nothing short of…well, scandalous.
In terms of tastelessness, the bottom seemed to have been reached in Britain in 1992, when details of a phone conversation between Prince Charles and the then-Camilla Parker Bowles were published. That was the conversation in which Charles spoke indelicately of tampons and matters usually not discussed in public.

But the News of the World took the practice of prying into private lives to previously unimagined depths with its hacking into the phone of a teenage abduction victim who later turned out to have been murdered. Not only did the paper hack Milly Dowler’s cellphone, but its hacker allegedly went so far as to erase some voice-mail messages in a full queue to make room for new ones, giving her family false hope she was still alive and possibly compromising the police investigation of her disappearance.

It was the disclosure of the Dowler hacking that apparently loosed the floodgates of public outrage in Britain. Thanks in no small part to Murdoch-style journalism, the British public has become pretty much inured to press intrusions into the lives of royals and celebrities. But the revelation that the News of the World was vamping on the tragedies of murdered schoolgirls and victims of London’s 2005 subway bombing—well, that was too much.

In her Vanity Fair article, reporter Sarah Ellison summed up the scandal thus:

The phone-hacking scandal is the story of a breathtaking moral logjam, a cautionary tale about what can happen when the boundaries between powerful entities blur—when the police and the politicians and the media are jockeying for self-preservation, even as they are aligned in a common interest not to run afoul of one another.

Not only have all of these entities now run afoul of one another, they have collided in spectacular fashion. Two top officials of Scotland Yard have resigned. The News of the World has been shut down. Two top executives of Murdoch’s empire—Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton—have been forced to quit. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who once employed Coulson as his communication chief, is trying to get ahead of the scandal and save his own job. A former News of the World reporter, Sean Hoare, who was a source for Ellison’s story as well as for several New York Times pieces on the scandal, was found dead under unexplained circumstance in his home outside London Monday. And there is talk of a revolt against Murdoch’s stewardship of his own creation, News Corporation, by independent board members. This scandal may yet consume a British government and Murdoch, too.

This disaster is the product not of one or even several rogue reporters. This is the product of a rogue organization.

Don Wycliff, a long time Chicago journalist and member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, has written extensively on ethics. He is newly appointed Board Member for the McCormick Foundation and has served as an Ethics Fellow for the Poynter Institute.

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