Messing with words

Two items in the November 30th NYT reporting on people messing with words: Newt Gingrich insisting that he is not a lobbyist and Paul McMullan (a former editor at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid) maintaining that his phone hacking, paying police officers for tips, stealing confidential documents, and the like were entirely justified because they were in service of the public interest. Lobbyist and public interest are what’s at issue here.

Lobbyist. AHD5 on the intransitive verb lobby:

To try to influence the thinking of legislators or other public officials for or against a specific cause.

NOAD2 is similar, and both treat lobbyist simply as a noun derived from this verb. But both definitions miss something that’s crucial to the legal status of lobbyist in the U.S. The Princeton Wordnet captures this additional content:

someone who is employed to persuade legislators to vote for legislation that favors the lobbyist’s employer. (link)

(That should be extended to cover government officials other than legislators.)

Now, Gingrich

is adamant that he is not a lobbyist, but rather a visionary who traffics in ideas, not influence. (Mike McIntire and Jim Rutenberg, “Gingrich Gave Push to Clients, Not Just Ideas”)

That is, he denies that he is attempting to influence federal officials. In fact, though he admits that companies have paid him (huge pots of money), he denies that they were employing him to influence people; they were paying him as a “consultant”, to espouse ideas that he was already committed to. McIntire and Rutenberg go on to dispute this view:

in the eight years since he started his health care consultancy, he has made millions of dollars while helping companies promote their services and gain access to state and federal officials.

Gingrich is skating on the thin edge of lexical semantics here, trying to wrench the word lobbyist around to satisfy his purposes:

Mr. Gingrich and his aides have repeatedly emphasized that he is not a registered lobbyist, an important distinction in their effort to position him as an outsider who will transform the ways of Washington. They say that he has never taken a position for money and that corporations have signed on with him because of the strength of his ideas.

… Yet if Mr. Gingrich has managed to steer clear of legal tripwires, a review of his activities shows how he put his influence to work on behalf of clients with a considerable stake in government policy. Even if he does not appear to have been negotiating legislative language, he and his staff did many of the same things that registered lobbyists do.

Public interest. On to Paul McMullan defending his actions. From Sarah Lyall’s “British Inquiry Told Hacking Is Worthy Tool”:

Nothing that Mr. McMullan said was particularly surprising … What was startling was that Mr. McMullan, who left his job in 2001, eagerly confessed to so much and on such a scale — no one else has done it quite this way — and that he maintained that none of it was wrong.

… Underhanded reporting techniques are not shocking at all, he said, particularly in light of how often he and his colleagues risked their lives in search of the truth.

… Journalists in Britain have traditionally justified shady practices by arguing that they are in “the public interest.” Asked by an inquiry lawyer how he would define that, Mr. McMullan said that the public interest is what the public is interested in.

Ouch. Wikipedia on the public interest:

the “common well-being” or “general welfare”

AHD5 similarly:

The well-being of the general public; the commonweal.

AHD5 does give a second sense —

The attention of the people with respect to events.

that treats the expression as closer to being semantically transparent (‘the interest of the people in something’), which is consonant with McMullan’s reading of it. But McMullan seems to be retreating into literalism to avoid the common understanding of the expression.

However, he might be using the expression as it is usually understood, but understanding what constitutes the common good in a radical way: he appears to believe that all information wants to be free, and that it is a public good to reveal everything:

Many witnesses at the Leveson Inquiry, especially victims of the tabloids, have called for a law to protect citizens from news media intrusion. Mr. McMullan said he thought that privacy was “evil,” in that it helps criminals cover up their misdeeds.

Using a Britishism for “pedophile,” he said, “Privacy is for pedos.”

Or maybe he just savors the hunt (he certainly loved the car chases), and most of this is self-justification.


2 Responses to “Messing with words”

  1. inyazserg Says:

    Hello, what`s “AHD5”? How is this dictionary called?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: