Back in the day when I worked on a 'traditional' media title I always knew it was a bad idea to annoy someone with a large barrel of ink - including me. When you have a big media property at your back then you have an undue amount of power at your fingertips. You can make or break institutions, organizations and people. Exercise that power well and you earn respect. Exercise it badly and you will get in trouble. Big trouble. Very occasionally, the object of a media's ire will push back and then things get interesting.
This week saw one media title threatened with extinction. That title has a reputation for behaving badly but also exposing some genuinely important stories. The problem is that some 10 years ago - note we're talking 10 years, not ten minutes or days or weeks - it took on one of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley who not only has a near bottomless pit of money, but also a very thin skin. That person is bank rolling a case of privacy infringement against no less of a person than Hulk Hogan. For those who are wondering where the heck this goes, then please check out the volumes of story written around this topic. You can't make this shit up. It reminds me of the Schoolkids Oz trial of 1971 and the many libel suits brought against Private Eye. The difference is that this is happening in America where money talks and bullshit walks.
What I or diginomica think about the current case doesn't matter, but what does matter is the threat to freedom of speech in American media. Right now, the fact a person of great wealth and power is behind a lawsuit has the potential in some people's eyes to change media and especially technology media. I disagree. If anything, the case has brought to light the underbelly of the power that technology can bestow upon people determined to force fit the world to their particular world view. That need not be a bad thing.
Consider for one moment the way Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft is using his enormous wealth to bring change for good in the world through his and his wife's foundation. Goodness knows how many barbs have been thrown at Gates over the years but I can't recall a case where he chose to try destroy a media outlet through his immense wealth. Whatever you might think about Microsoft and the power it wields, you'd be hard pressed to fault Gate's intentions as evidenced by his actions today. You cannot say the same about Peter Thiel, the man behind today's case against Gawker.
What I can and will say is this: no-one likes a school yard bully and that is how Thiel is behaving. In secretly bankrolling the Hogan case, which is legal in America, but more importantly in having lawyers pursue the case in a manner that ensures Gawker insurers cannot pick up the eventual tab, Thiel is exercising undue power in a case that has absolutely nothing to do with him, and almost certainly means that Gawker's days are numbered. Thiel is pursuing revenge against a title that, while some may say acted unethically in outing Thiel as gay, did so well within the the bounds of established law. Others will say that Gawker, the title of Thiel's ire is getting what's coming to it. The reality is that Thiel is seeking to bury Gawker under nose bleed expensive litigation in a case where only one side can win.
I call that outrageously unfair to the point of obscene.
Titanic legal struggles are nothing new in America. We see them all the time, often with a degree of cynical amusement. This is different. When one person with near unlimited wealth holds the power to destroy a relatively annoying but sometimes important media title over something that no-one cares about, then something is very wrong with the system that allows that to happen. I know almost nothing about the American legal system but I do know two things:
- Freedom of speech matters and while it is often abused, it is one thing above all others that keeps America on the right side of sanity.
- Abuse of power, however it is exercised, is dangerous. It is on the wrong side of insanity.
Where this case goes next is anyone's guess but of one thing I am certain - we will always maintain what we believe to be an independent view of the technology world. It may not always be to some people's taste, but without media checks and balances, the world becomes a very poor place. Goodness knows but technology brings enormous power as it is. Exercising that power responsibly and for the better good must surely be its purpose. Media for its part should double down on its efforts to keep the players in the technology game honest. We will.