The Sony hack, and double standards

Is it right to run news stories based on material that's blatantly been stolen? Simon sticks his flame suit on...

If you have an aversion to articles where we get on our high horse a bit, it’s probably best you walk away now. Or at least cut me a bit of slack until we get to the end.

As you more than likely know, Sony Pictures, as well as several other companies since, has been the victim of a major online hack on its servers. At first, this hack seemed to just affect the company’s web page, but in the past week, it’s been clear it’s a lot more serious. Several of the firm’s movies have leaked online, as well as a bunch of documents and e-mails regarding projects that Sony was and is working on.

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There’s no middle ground here. Those documents were acquired by theft. That’s it. All concerned seem to agree on that.

This particular hack follows earlier incidents this year.

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For starters, a bunch of famous people had their Apple iCloud accounts hacked, and private pictures they stored there were leaked extensively. It would be fair to say that pretty much every major news outlet refused to run the pictures, although understandably reported news of the leak itself. That, after all, is newsworthy, and I’d argue fair comment. Running the pictures? Well, it would be outright abuse at its worst. Given that some of the pictures were of people in a state of undress, and absolutely not intended for public consumption, at best it was theft, at worst, a quite horrible, inhumane and utterly illegal thing to spread them into the public domain.

The major news outlets stood side by side in refusing to run the pictures. It was a good moment off the back of something despicable.

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Next example? That’d be The Expendables 3. A full print of the film leaked online weeks before the movie’s general release in cinemas, and it was widely seen. Lionsgate continues to pursue legal action over the leak, and the depressed US box office figures for the third Expendables movie are likely – if we’re being realistic – to be in part (although far from entirely) because many people downloaded it for free beforehand.

The major news outlets stood side by side in refusing to review the film based on this leak, instead waiting for proper press screenings. It was a good moment off the back of something despicable.

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Then, we’re at the Sony hack. This wasn’t a leak of a set picture, or a tip off from a source. This was people hacking into a company’s servers, stealing private information, and making it available without their consent. Thus, not only have certain films leaked, but so have documents relating to an assortment of Sony projects. These involve major franchises and a lot of human beings.

The major news outlets couldn’t wait to delve through them and run the stories.

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Let’s make no bones about this either: there were some juicy, major stories in there. Huge ones in some instances. However, I can’t shake the feeling that they were obtained by theft. That outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter – to name just a handful – are, ultimately, benefitting from stolen property, and feeding on the spoils of it. Some are reporting it as a leak. But it’s not a leak. It’s an illegal hack. Bluntly, a theft.

So why is this okay? Why has there not been a moment to even stop and contemplate what this means? In the UK at least, many have reacted with shock and outrage, for instance, at the phone hacking scandal that’s asked serious questions of the practices journalists undertake to obtain their stories. But that’s what this is too, isn’t it? The context and content may be different, but the core remains.

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Maybe it’s because Sony is a big corporation, and is seen as a firm that can take it. After all, that’s true on both counts. But does that make it right? Does that mean that if hackers attacked any server, then the information they obtain would be fair game for anyone trying to knock out a 300 word news story against a deadline?

I’d argue not. In fact, I’d argue this was a great chance to draw a line in the sand. And I commend the outlets – generally the smaller ones – who resisted the click bait opportunity to post a story. And then there’s Empire magazine. There’s not a syllable about the leaked stories on its website, and for an outlet of its size, it’s taking a massive traffic hit by resisting them, the same for Total Film.

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But – and it sounds horribly old fashioned to say this – running the stories would surely be the wrong thing to do.

And let’s be clear: nobody’s perfect. We’ve run material before based on a picture that was leaked, or something that we discovered afterwards wasn’t official. There’s a lot of stuff in grey areas, and it’s not always possible to make the right call.

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But still: doesn’t the line have to be drawn somewhere? And I’d argue that the line has to be drawn in a way that’s clear whether you’re a big company or a two person outlet. If someone broke into your house, stole your personal documents and published them online, you would – quite rightly – be incandescent. Again, let’s make no bones about the fact that that’s what’s happened here. And whilst the stories may well be juicy, they’re also private. They’ve not been earned by investigative journalism, or good interview techniques. They’ve not been released by the company concerned. They’ve been uncovered by traipsing through stolen documents, in search of website hits.

And yeah: I know. I’m back on a soapbox, and I expect to be shot down. But this feels important to me. Either it’s right to run material gained from server hacks or it isn’t. It’s not a tricky divide. If Sony starts talking about individual stories? That might be different. But with one single source, and that source being what it is, I think running stories based on said material is wrong.

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Unfortunately, many of the same outlets who claimed moral outrage when earlier leaks happened this year are feasting on this theft though, without a second thought. As someone who’s had ups and downs with Sony, and its products, over the years, I just think that’s double standards, and wrong. No matter how good the resultant story.

As ever, do feel free to disagree. I don’t expect everyone to share my view on this, but I do think it’s something worth talking about.

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