Gizmodo’s iPhone scoop is a scandal

There’s been a lot of discussion about Gizmodo’s big iPhone scoop, where an iPhone prototype was apparently left in a bar. The person who found it then went round the gadget sites, selling it to Gizmodo for $5,000 (says the New York Times).

Gawker Media (Gizmodo’s parent company) has made a smart financial investment here: apparently the story has already had 20 million-plus page views. But the whole thing stinks.

Gawker says it didn’t know the iPhone was stolen. That seems awfully far-fetched to me: you don’t pay five grand for something you suspect will be a cheap Chinese knock-off: you pay because you’re pretty sure it’s an iPhone. And if it’s an iPhone, you can be absolutely certain you’re not being offered it with Apple’s express permission. Whether it was lost in a bar or obtained through more underhanded means, Gawker knew that the person who was flogging it wasn’t the rightful owner.

There’s no public interest justification for what Gawker has done. It hasn’t exposed price fixing, or exploding hardware, or child labour, or anything else that we have a reasonable right to know about. Everybody wants to know what’s in the next iPhone, but nobody has the *right* to know.  It’s the tech industry equivalent of paying someone to go through Kerry Katona’s bins or hack into public figures’ voicemail.

Gawker is unrepentant. Of course it is. It got the scoop, it got the hits, and if the poor sod who allegedly lost the phone in the first place gets the sack they’ll get more hits from that. If Apple sues, they’ll get even more hits – and probably more whistleblowers – from the legal tussles, which could go on for months or even years. From Gawker’s perspective, the whole thing is the most epic win possible.

From here, though, it looks like chequebook journalism at its most tawdry. Paying for stolen property and exposing trade secrets to make a bit more ad revenue isn’t the sort of behaviour that makes people go “when I grow up, I want to be a journalist” – and more importantly, it’s going to make Apple’s (and others’) control freakery even worse, possibly with unintended consequences: remember last year’s suicide when a Chinese worker lost an iPhone prototype?

And of course, it exposes some of us as hypocrites. I might not like it, but that didn’t stop me reading it – and every click is a vote in favour of more bad behaviour.