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On Rupert Murdoch's Hacking, and Obama's

Logical Consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.
— Thomas Henry Huxley, Animal Automatism

A number of readers have written asking me to explain why the remedies available to Rupert Murdoch differ from the remedies available to President Obama. They are curious because both men are dealing with “hacking.” The president is dealing with hacking done by the National Security Agency that is part of the United States Government of which he is the president. The hacking Mr. Murdoch is dealing with was done by the News of the World, a tabloid that is part of the media empire controlled by Mr. Murdoch.

The request for an explanation is no doubt prompted by alert readers who noticed the confluence of two seemingly unrelated events that took place on October 28, 2013. The first event involved high-ranking European officials who travelled to Washington to visit the President and appropriate members of his administration to discuss the N.S.A.’s hacking of the cell phones of, among other prominent United States allies, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Francois Hollande of France. The other event involves the October 28 start of the trial of six people who used to work at News of the World.

In the case of the newspaper hacking, in 2011 it was learned that employees at News of the World, had engaged in a number of illegal activities when doing research for stories they wanted to write. Their illegal conduct enabled the reporters to write the kinds of stories that make a tabloid a tabloid and helped make Rupert Murdoch rich.

Among the less savory acts engaged in by the newspaper was hacking mobile phone voicemails of a missing 13-year old girl who had in fact been murdered. Reporters from the paper accessed the dead child’s voice mail account and deleted messages. The child’s parents were thus led to believe that the child was still alive and, being alive, accessing her e-mail and deleting messages. The child’s e-mail was not the only account the reporters hacked. They also hacked into voice mail accounts of relatives of British soldiers who were killed in Iraq, voice mail accounts of the royal family, etc. The trial began October 28th and is expected to last several months.

The owner of the paper at the time all these activities are alleged to have taken place was News Corp and the owner of News Corp, for all practical purposes, was Rupert Murdoch. During his testimony before British lawmakers on July 19, 2011, Mr. Murdoch said he knew nothing about the phone hacking and bribery and told the lawmakers he was the best person “to clean this up.”

Meanwhile, back in the United States, foreign dignitaries from Germany and France came to Washington to address the hacking of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone and French president Francois Hollande’s cell phone by the N.S.A. As a result of the activities of the oft maligned Edward Snowden, the world learned that the N.S.A. engaged in not only hacking the phones of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and French President Francois Hollande, but phones of 35 other foreign leaders. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande were not amused. They were outraged. And that is why their representatives came to the United States at the same time the trial in London began.

The president of the United States during the last five years in which the hacking has taken place was Barack Obama. Like Mr. Murdoch, President Obama was unaware that friendly leaders’ phones had been hacked.

The obvious question in response to both activities is what actions should the men in charge take in addition to those described above since both men were completely unaware of the illicit conduct that was taking place on their respective watches. The answer is both men did all they could do but for obvious reasons their responses could not be the same.

When Mr. Murdoch learned of what was going on at his newspaper he cleaned things up. On July 11, seven days before he testified in front of British lawmakers about the hacking, the News of the World published its final edition. Mr. Murdoch had shut it down. When Mr. Obama learned of the NSA’s activities, he also cleaned things up. He ordered an immediate end to N.S.A. monitoring of the phones of world leaders and initiated a review of other N.S.A. hacking practices. Unlike Mr. Murdoch, however, Mr. Obama could not shut down the government and send all the members of Congress home. That’s a real shame.

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