No limits after Bush emails hacked
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