You don't need no stinkin' passive

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AN EXTRAORDINARY SERIES of news revelations about "hacking" scandal in the Murdoch-owned tabloid press continues to amaze the UK public. There are bombshells exploding here in Britain every eight hours or so: an ex-editor and former government aide arrested; a whole newspaper permanently closed down on 48 hours' notice; news that CEO Rebekah Brooks' resignation had been refused by Rupert Murdoch, followed by news that she had indeed resigned, and then by her interrogation at a police station, and finally by her arrest; the resignation (because they had received favors from the newspaper and done favors for it) of the head of London's Metropolitan Police and a former assistant commissioner . . . I have never seen anything like this in the turbulent history of Britain's feisty press. But none of it has been mentioned here on Language Log, because linguistic issues are simply not coming up. The issue is crime, not grammar. In fact, I noticed in one recent case that you could see grammar being quite decisively not the issue. People keep accusing the English passive construction of evils like concealment of agency and evasion of responsibility (and you can see the trope coming up in the context of this story in this post by Adrian Short), but it is a bum rap; the passive is ultimately irrelevant. Take a look at the truly staggering piece of misdirection concerning agency to which Erik Wemple and subsequently James Fallows have drawn our attention. They note that the Fox News program "Fox and Friends" recently raised the topic of "hacking" and then brought on an expert in corporate public relations, Bob Dilenschneider, to talk about how people shouldn't be "piling on" The News of the World or its parent company News International because there's hacking all over the place and we need to focus on that . . .

Says Dilenschneider indignantly at one point (you can watch the video, which both Wemple and Fallows embed in their posts):

Why are so many people piling on at this point? We know it's a hacking scandal. Shouldn't we get beyond it and really deal with the issue of hacking? Citicorp has been hacked into. Bank of America has been hacked into. American Express has been hacked into. Insurance companies have been hacked into. . . So we have to figure out a way to deal with this hacking problem. That's what we have to do.

The presenter, Steve Doocy, then drags in the fact that a hacker recently broke into the Pentagon's computers and 24,000 files were "stolen" ("sucked out", as the presenter puts it: I take it he just means accessed), and Dilenschneider obediently agrees with him and goes on about how we've got a big hacking problem "in this country" (the USA!) and we've got to "find ways to defend ourselves" against people "getting access to what we have". He suggests it is grossly unfair that nobody is talking much about Citigroup or Bank of America, where hacking incidents occurred less than a year ago; instead they're talking about events at The News of the World in the UK nearly a decade ago.

The staggering thing about all this — I keep playing the video over as if to convince myself that I'm actually seeing it — is that he completely, and as far as I can see deliberately, obscures the issue of agency in all this. Citicorp, Bank of American, American Express, and the Pentagon were victims of break-ins by computer hackers. But the scandal at The News of the World didn't involve anyone breaking into insecure computers — indeed, it didn't involve computers at all; as Joshua Fruhlinger points out to me, this conversation could only get going because of the accident that the word hacking is being very carelessly used. People paid by The News of the World were in actuality the criminals, not the victims! They illegally accessed hundreds or thousands of citizens' cell phone voicemail boxes. They did it by exploiting the fact that hardly anybody changes the factory settings for the PIN number that permits remote access to voice messages from other phones. Not computer hacking at all, just illegal exploitation of an eavesdropping opportunity.

These people were really scum, by the way. They did a lot of eavesdropping on celebrities' cell phone messages, but in the case where the shit really hit the fan they listened in on the cell phone voicemail of a teenager who had disappeared. When her voicemail box filled up with anxious calls from worried relatives (she had in fact been murdered), the news hounds deleted a few to make more room so they could listen to more private anxiety and grief! Even in the annals of Britain's gutter press, this (which of course also constituted interference with evidence potentially relevant to a murder case) sinks to a new moral nadir.

The profoundly scummy criminal activity by News of the World and News International employees has not the remotest conceptual connection to any probing of bank or military computer security by unauthorized computer users. Dilenschneider's obfuscatory spouting is the worst case I have ever seen of someone trying to conceal corporate responsibility by muddling both the issue of what crime we're talking about and the issue of agency.

And characteristically, the passive voice has nothing to do with it. Yes, there are occasional passive clauses in what Dilenschneider says: hacked into (as in Citicorp has been hacked into) is a passive clause: it's an agentless prepositional passive, and being agentless, it doesn't say who did the hacking. But of course it can't: the hacker has not been identified, so it's exactly right to use an agentless passive here. And the passive voice has nothing to do with the dishonesty of the segment as a whole.

The dishonesty lies in the fact that the Murdoch-owned Fox News show brought Dilenschneider on to blow smoke, in an effort to at least partially obscure the issues in the erupting scandal in its sister news organization. Nothing depended on in the grammar of what he said overall. Often grammar is not the story. With guys as dishonest as Dilenschneider and Doocy doing the talking, you don't need no stinkin' passive.

[Hat tip to Simon Kirby. Comments are closed because we need to get beyond this commenting issue and really deal with the issue of hacking; that's what we have to do.]

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