Why only some hackers get thrown to the wolves

The chattering classes hate tabloid phone-hackers but love computer hackers like Gary McKinnon. Have double standards ever been so brazen?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Sometimes the double standards of Britain’s chattering classes are so brazen that you have no choice but to look upon them with awe. So it was yesterday, when in one breath the liberal broadsheet press cheered the Crown Prosecution Service’s bringing of charges against former employees of the News of the World for their role in hacking into people’s phones, while in the next breath it bemoaned the threatened extradition to America of British citizen Gary McKinnon for his role in hacking into US military computers. In the eyes of the self-styled devisers of decent moral behaviour, it seems some hacking is bad, and should be punished by the state, while other hacking is good, or at least excusable, and should be left alone by the state.

For the past two years, the well-educated, ostensibly liberal sections of Britain’s influential classes have been driving themselves demented over the horrors of hacking. Not hacking in general, though – just the sort of hacking they don’t like, the sort of hacking they consider grubby and pointless, in particular the hacking of phones carried out by Them, the immoral scoundrels in the pay of red-top papers owned by Rupert Murdoch. At the same, double standard-riven time, other forms of hacking have been treated very differently by these inhabitants of the rarefied world of broadsheet morality, and have won their implicit or even explicit blessing. Mr McKinnon’s hacking into NASA and American defence computers is one example; Aussie weirdo Julian Assange’s scouring of global government computers for tittle tattle about Colonel Gaddafi’s buxom Ukrainian nurse is another.

This double standard came to a head yesterday, when the CPS said that eight former News of the World employees would face charges on the hacking of 600 people’s phones between 2000 and 2006, at almost the exact same time that the Home Office announced that the decision over whether to extradite McKinnon to the US on charges of hacking would be delayed until October. The first bit of news was greeted with glee by serious journalists, who have been angling for two years to have tabloid phone-hackers dragged before the courts and ideally banged up, while the second bit of news was greeted with dismay by the very same journalists, who have also been agitating for years to have McKinnon freed from threat of extradition and who have praised the ‘gusto and brilliance’ with which he hacked into computer systems.

The different language used to describe phone-hacking at the News of the World and computer-hacking carried out by individuals like McKinnon is striking, clearly signalling that the opinion-forming set will decide, like a secular Vatican Council, which kinds of hacking are morally turpitudinous and which are Good. So where tabloid phone-hackers have been branded a ‘different breed’ to broadsheet journalists, and as ‘bloodthirsty sharks’ and ‘sociopaths’ who inhabit ‘an amoral universe’, McKinnon has been treated with intellectual kid gloves. He is ‘no enemy of the state’, decrees the Guardian, which now decides, thank you very much, who is and is not an enemy of the state or the people (Murdoch employees – yes; computer hackers – no). McKinnon’s hacking into defence computers, where he was looking for evidence that America had suppressed information about UFOs and about a new kind of ‘free energy’ that would liberate the world from both carbon and nuclear (another wacky conspiracy theory), has been treated as romantic and daring. ‘From a council flat and with a battered first-generation laptop, he hacked into army computers with… gusto and brilliance’, we’re told.

Part of the justification that the liberal press gives for its ‘Free Gary’ campaigning is that McKinnon is a ‘vulnerable individual’ with mental health problems; he has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (er, hasn’t everyone these days?) and yet is being targeted by an ‘overwhelmingly powerful force’: the American courts. But this is unconvincing. Why didn’t these concerned journalists extend the same sympathy towards NoTW hacks with mental-health issues? It was reported earlier this year that, during the police operation to arrest and question Sun and NoTW hacks, which was one of the biggest police operations in British history, two of the hacks attempted suicide and were hospitalised. But no one said ‘leave off’. The focus on McKinnon’s alleged vulnerability looks like a PC cover for the fact that many observers simply believe that his kind of hacking was brave and cool, while their hacking, in horrid Wapping, was warped and immoral.

What this stark double standard misses is that, in fact, today’s sweeping cult of hacking, which spreads from the News of the World to the antics of computer geeks like McKinnon to that former Guardian wonderkid Julian Assange, is all immoral and pathetic. This is not to say that using phone- or computer-hacking as a tool in a bigger investigation into something you believe to be happening, and whose exposure you believe to be important, is always wrong. As Mick Hume argues in his forthcoming book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, journalists must be at liberty to make ‘judgment calls’ on individual instances of hackery, and other underhand methods, in their pursuit of a story – whether it be about political misdeeds, warmongering or celebrity hypocrisy. But today, hacking is no longer just one potential method for uncovering truth – rather it has become a default position, a way of life, a permanent, deeply cynical attitude among both journalists and activists which effectively says: ‘I am going to trawl every computer and every phone in the world until I find something juicy.’

In this form of ritualised hacking, one constantly eavesdrops, all the time, not in order to find hard evidence for one’s informed suspicions about a specific matter but simply as a way of satiating one’s naturally suspicious mindset, taking a cynical starting point which says: this person or company must be doing something dodgy and I am going to listen and listen until I discover that they are. This hacking-as-way-of-life was not only rampant at the News of the World, where at some point journalists started listening to well-known people’s voicemails as a matter of course; it is also rife in the world of radical computer hackery, from McKinnon to groups like Lulzsec, and in the antics of that one-time darling of the liberal press, Julian Assange. (The Guardian has bizarrely compared that infamous hacker to Mother Teresa – a far cry from how it describes NoTW hackers.)

So where the NoTW trawled phone messages for gossip, Assange and his numerous disciples trawl government communiqués for… gossip. Guardian journalists used Ctrl-F to find certain words in the thousands of documents dumped on their laps by Assange, words that might point to shameful shenanigans – which is not that different to NoTW hacks listening out for certain words and rumours in the phone messages of the rich and famous. The Wikileaks hacking uncovered a whole world of international gossip, covering everything from Gaddafi’s lust for his saucy Ukranian nurse to the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy once chased a rabbit around his office – which is not that different to the NoTW uncovering personal nonsense about Prince Harry or Steve Coogan or whoever. In both cases, we have passive gossip-trawling rather than active truth-seeking, and privacy invasion as a matter of course rather than as the occasional byproduct of a serious search for a story.

There are many problems with today’s cult of hacking. It is born from and it further exacerbates a climate of shallow cynicism and suspicion of figures of authority. It pokes its nose into things that are none of its business. And it replaces meaningful question-asking about the world we live in with lazy listening-in to every conversation and communiqué between the rich, the powerful and the famous. Yet whether this ritualised hacking will be condemned depends entirely on who is carrying it out: if it’s a friend of the liberal elite, he’ll be defended, maybe even championed; if it’s a foe of the liberal elite, he might be imprisoned, cast into shame. How about we call off the chattering classes’ witch-hunt against NoTW hacks, and cancel America’s desired extradition of McKinnon while we’re at it, and instead have a serious debate about what has gone culturally wrong in modern Britain to allow the rise and rise of a weird and pretty destructive cult of hacking?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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