Been quiet here with end of term busyness and stuff, but as we come to the first Sunday in… well, around 150 years, where there’s not been a News of the World to buy, I wanted to offer some reflections on the phone-hacking scandal. It’s pretty much dominated the UK news for weeks now, and is threatening to engulf things in the US too – especially if it is found that phones of 9/11 victims were hacked.
The reaction here has reached fever pitch to be honest – politicians who would once have thought twice about saying anything that could be labelled as criticism of Murdoch or News Corp are openly calling for the empire to be dismantled. The Emperor himself is under the kosh: he took out full page apologies in national newspapers yesterday, many of his most trusted deputies have resigned, and he appeared (genuinely?) shaken as he met the family of Milly Dowler, holding his head in his hands over and over again.
Two connected things happened yesterday that gave me pause for thought though. Firstly, a good friend commented that she wasn’t sure what the difference was between what Assange had done with Wikileaks and journalists had done hacking phones for information. Secondly, I read a very interesting interview with Slavoj Zizek in The Guardian – who have been central to both stories – in which he said this:
“We learned nothing new really from WikiLeaks,” he tells me later. “Julian is like the boy who tells us the emperor is naked – until the boy says it everybody could pretend the emperor wasn’t. Don’t confuse this with the usual bourgeois heroism which says there is rottenness but the system is basically sound. […] Julian strips away that pretence. All power is hypocritical like this. What power finds intolerable is when the hypocrisy is revealed.”
Musing on such films as The Pelican Brief etc., where corruption is shown to reach the very top, Zizek explains the ideology of such works resides in their upbeat final message: what a great country ours must be, when a couple of ordinary guys like you and me can bring down the president, the mightiest man on Earth!”
In a public debate on the issue, Zizek then went on to call Assange a terrorist:
“You are a terrorist in the way that Gandhi was. In what sense was Gandhi a terrorist? He tried to stop the normal functioning of the British state in India. You are trying to stop the normal functioning of information circulation.”
What both Wikileaks and the News of the World did was rip open closed situations and reveal the truth for public view. Let’s rememeber: NOTW and News Corp are not being attacked for publishing lies. They are being attacked for the way in which they went after the truth. Similarly, the fiercest attacks on Wikileaks came not for publishing lies, but for publishing things which were true which, people argued, should have remained hidden.
Both of these cases then hinge on the ethics of secrecy: if something is true, does it have a right to remain hidden?
The difference between the two cases is that Wikileaks went after state secrets, which may or may not impinge on national security. The NOTW, on the other hand, went after what we might call family secrets, things that were true, but were of a deeply personal nature. The issue is made more complex because Julian Assange is now on trial – a process of truth-revelation – for crimes committed in a very personal/vulnerable situation.
Should states – collections of individuals functioning at a highly corporate level – be allowed to keep secrets? Do individuals, or smaller collectives of individuals, have a right to keep secrets? It seems that the answers are, in turn, sometimes and yes. But I want to encourage people to reflect on what this might mean in a Christian context.
Jesus, occasionally, ‘hacked’ the very personal secrets of people he met: Zaccheus, Peter, the Samaritan woman at the well. He opened them up and brought their secrets into the open. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free…
He also, in a way, was a terrorist like Gandhi by Zizek’s definition: changing the normal function of information circulation at a state level. His criticisms of the Pharisees and other religious and state structures were no more than a stripping away of pretence. The common people to whom he spoke already knew that the temple system was corrupt and the Law was oppressive. He simply gave voice to that and opened up the truth of it for public debate. And for that, one might argue, he was killed by the state.
Christianity had long struggles with Gnosticism, which carried elements of ‘secret wisdom’ – restricted truths. In my experience as a young Christian in youth groups and beyond we were encouraged to be ‘totally accountable’ to elders and not keep any secrets. Catholics were to go to confession to unload their hidden truths.
There is a difference between privacy and secrecy, and a difference between digging for state secrets and scratching around for scurrilous personal details. But Christians should be wary of a facile approach to these differences, for Jesus’ relationship to truth, and the appropriate place for keeping it a secret, was more complex than we might assume.