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No limits after Bush emails hacked

Date

Paul Farhi

Emails "newsworthy" ... George W. Bush.

Emails "newsworthy" ... George W. Bush. Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON: By the old rules of journalism, George W. Bush's private emails to his family might never have been published or broadcast - certainly not without his permission. Most news organisations would have thought twice about publishing personal messages that were, in essence, stolen goods.

But that was then. The former US president's private communications and photos sent to family members went far and wide over the internet on Friday after they were published by a website.

The Smoking Gun, an American website that specialises in unearthing material about criminal and legal matters, disclosed the Bush family's personal correspondence in a story based on material it said it received from a hacker identified only as ''Guccifer''. A predictable and near-instant tidal wave ensued, with the story and variations on it being linked, tweeted and otherwise disseminated quickly.

It raises the question, are there any standards left with regard to what can be published?

The Smoking Gun's story is ostensibly a report on the breach of electronic security surrounding the Bush family. The site reported that the hacked material included confidential lists of home addresses, mobile phone numbers and emails for ''dozens'' of Bush family members, including both former presidents. It did not disclose the details of the lists.

But the site - founded in 1997 and owned by Time Warner - went further than merely describing how deeply the hacker had penetrated the accounts.

The Smoking Gun published apparently private Bush family photos from the hacker's cache, such as a shot of George Bush snr in his hospital bed in December. It also quoted from emails that revealed deep family concerns about the elder Bush's health, including one from George jnr seeking input from his relatives for a eulogy to his father.

''We certainly thought hard about using some of the stuff,'' the site's editor and co-founder, William Bastone, said. ''The nature of the hack was so extensive and extraordinary - considering that two presidents had their emails illegally accessed - that we clearly thought it was newsworthy.''

But ethics experts took a dimmer view. Even prominent people ''enjoy some right of privacy,'' said Richard Wald, a professor at Columbia University's school of journalism and the former president of NBC News.

''If the hack had revealed malefaction of a great nature, you'd say, 'Thank God they published it'. But if it's just [trivial], it injures the notion of civility.''

Ethical constructs are under siege in an age in which virtually any individual can publish or broadcast information, said Stephen Ward, director of the Centre for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

''Media ethics aren't just for the media any more,'' he said. ''They're for everyone.''

The Washington Post

13 comments

  • Two words: Warrentless Wiretapping.

    Commenter
    Silent lamb
    Date and time
    February 11, 2013, 6:56AM
    • Two words: you watch too much TV.

      Oh wait... that's 5 words.

      Commenter
      Don
      Location
      Hawthorn
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 12:37PM
  • If it triggers a debate its a good thing. I strongly suspect it won't. If pictures of Princess Diana's corpse were for sale then I can't see this latest outrage changing anything. The only thing I can do is ignore this if it is ever published more widely. Who's with me?

    Commenter
    zapkvr
    Location
    Geelong
    Date and time
    February 11, 2013, 7:16AM
    • So called modern Journalism, especially of the progressive kind coupled with civlity is an oxymoron. In America the hatred of GW Bush in the MSM including the Washington Post itself, is widespread and deep seated. As to balance: in America everything that is wrong is always attributed to "Bush Bush, Bush" : even after four years of Obama's Democrat administration, in Australia everything worng is attrobuted to "Abbott, Abbott, Abbott" even though he has yet to take over the governent and after nearly 6 years of ALP Rudd/Gillard government. .

      Commenter
      The Beak
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 7:57AM
      • I agree with you about the modern journalism. however some things to do with the 'Bush, Bush, Bush are warranted. People tend to forget how in the 8 years in office some of the policies and decisions he created are being felt to this day in America and world wide. As for The Abbott, Abbott, Abbott it is a simple warning to Australia of the gridlock this Mr Negative trying to be Mr Positive has caused while in opposition, God forbid what he would do when in office. You dont have to disagree with everything even if it is right for the country, simply because you are in opposition. I am a liberal supporter who would rather have Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey or even Scott Morrison take on the reigns rather than Tony Abbott, he is very decisive.

        Commenter
        Mapepa26
        Date and time
        February 11, 2013, 11:32AM
      • Here we have an article about media ethics and a US president, yet somehow it has become about poor, down-trodden Abbott. Is sounds like it is YOU that is obsessed with talking about Abbott, I haven't seen anybody else talk about him on this thread.

        Anybody that uses the phrase "Abbott, Abbott, Abbott" is obviously an Andrew Bolt fan. Yes, I watched his show once and caught that segment. Now I see it in right-wing comments like yours.

        It's called a talking point, and conservatives are great at using them to muddy the waters so that casual observers think we're looking at a 50/50 disagreement. Like climate change, which is more of a 96/4 consensus, with Big Oil sponsored science making up the 4%.

        Conservatives, however, are by definition on the wrong side of history. Progress is always made, despite the conservative roadblocks.

        Commenter
        Mick
        Date and time
        February 11, 2013, 1:48PM
    • The individuals who created the technologies of the Internet used to be educated.

      Now any monkey can use those technologies to implement what ever agenda their monkey brains can design. They understand nothing of ethics. Like a spoilt child they inherit all the products of hard labour without the wisdom.

      Here is the result.

      Commenter
      Nicolas
      Date and time
      February 11, 2013, 8:46AM
      • "Ethical constructs are under siege in an age in which virtually any individual can publish or broadcast information"

        Unless it allegedly concerns "national security", commercial-in-confidence provisions in PPPs or is potentially defamatory. In which case publish at your own peril.

        Commenter
        lol
        Date and time
        February 11, 2013, 11:19AM
        • This is a family who has, according to many accounts, had some small part to play in many foul deeds. It is not surprising that they are under considerable scrutiny.

          Commenter
          Journeyman
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          February 11, 2013, 12:01PM
          • Can somebody show me the private information of Guccifer?

            Commenter
            Opinion Only
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            February 11, 2013, 12:47PM

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