Updated: May 10, 2020
There can be few, if any, workers in the media industry who have not thought almost constantly about the News Corporation scandal and what it means for journalism and for our lives in general. I’ve been attempting to organise some of these thoughts in a series of blog posts.
I’ll start this one by saying that it’s the innocent ones I feel sorry for. The actions of a few bad apples who dealt in scandal, smear and innuendo have impacted on the vast majority. Now that majority will have to find another paper to read on Sundays. OK, I’m being a little facetious – but there is an inescapable irony here. The public is outraged about what was served up in a paper that more of the public bought than any other paper. In all the condemnation of journalists and journalism, the public appetite for this kind of thing seems to have been overlooked.
Of course the NotW’s readership was not a majority of the population. But neither is the number of people who like football, and that’s still our national sport. The fact is that enough people wanted to read what the Murdoch tabloids printed to make the influence of those papers what it was. This is not to excuse some of the alleged activities at NI, rather to look more fully at the question of responsibility.
There’s a kind of chicken and egg argument here, does the press print want what the public wants or does the public want what the press prints? That question is important when much of the consensus in politics is based on what the press will find acceptable.
And that brings us to the politicians, some of whom are now heroes again after the villainy of the expenses scandal. I can’t be the only one to have asked why they didn’t speak out before, and there’s something a bit discomforting – and in the case of Gordon Brown’s statement not entirely convincing – about the way in which some are now piling in. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? We’d all like to think we would stand up against the bullies, to face down fear – but I suspect that that many of us may just have decided not to take the risk. Faced with being smeared, even stitched up, for speaking out, many politicians chose not to.
You could argue that being a politician means you don’t have the option to stay silent. And certainly when the man who was Prime Minister says there was little he could do because he was in public life you really have to question how and why that came to be the case. As Matthew Norman asked “What did he tell himself he was doing all those years if the paramount point of power was to retain it by prostrating himself before power?”
The press claims it represents the public, the politicians say they need to keep the press on side to convince the public, the public participates in the outrage the press whips up in the challenge to the manufactured consensus. So who is to blame?
That change in mindset I talked about in an earlier post needs to happen. News journalism especially needs to question more, to assert its independence – and that requires a look at the question of concentration of media ownership too. But there needs to be a wider change, a wider questioning of the lines we are fed. A public that has seemed only too willing marginalise dissenting voices, to buy what it is told, needs to assert itself too. This is beginning to happen in the case of UK Uncut, a modern, organic and vibrant citizen’s movement that has popularised the issue of tax avoidance. The Labour government failed to do this, partly because of its fear of the right-wing press, during 17 years in power – UK Uncut has succeeded in less than one year.
We can’t pretend that just because the NotW is gone that the attitudes it promoted have gone too. It may have been convenient for many, particularly progressive thinkers, to convince themselves that people only thought what they were told to think by the press. The reality was and is that people are perfectly capable of forming their own views.
I’ve also been concerned about what exactly it is we are saying is wrong. Is it the alleged law-breaking? The morals of the paper’s news agenda? The politics promoted? The fascination with what Suzanne Moore called matters that “may not be sufficiently bourgeois”? We need to be clear. On the law-breaking, it’s pretty clear cut – some of what’s alleged broke the law and those responsible should be punished. On the rest, some worrying trends emerge.
Those celebrating the disappearance of a right-wing voice need to consider how wise it is to back the closure of something for political reasons. If a left wing voice was closed down, would that be OK? I don’t want to come over all relativist but the inescapable fact in defending plurality is that it involves defending the expression of views you don’t agree with as well as the ones you do.
Then there’s the morals argument – not the morals of phone hacking because that issue can be dealt with under ‘legal’, but the morals of the paper that became known as the News of the Screws. The distaste of the high-minded set for the diet of sex and prurience the paper served up is clear, but they have no more right to dictate taste than an unelected businessman has to dictate political policy. While I think The Guardian has done a great job on the phone-hacking story, personally I don’t particularly like the middle-class smuggery that runs through much of its output. That doesn’t mean I think it should close.
At the moment, all these factors are being run together as evidence of what is bad and what has to change. And that is as wrong as the traditional red-top defence of what it does equating the right to report what consenting adults do in bedrooms – or elsewhere, I’m a man of the world – and the right to report public figures doing what they should not. So we have a chorus of press criticism which includes genuinely outraged observers alongside politicians and celebrities with axes to grind. It’s particularly galling to see Hugh Grant wheeled out as a front man for reform. This is a man who says it is OK for the rich to use superinjunctions to prevent stories about themselves appearing in the press, on the grounds that “men are naughty”. Now, I couldn’t care less about how naughty anyone is as long as it’s all consenting, but there are some very obvious criticisms to be made here – not least why “naughty” men with money should be able to protect their privacy but those without shouldn’t.
Grant’s argument is that privacy is a basic human right that shouldn’t be removed because you’ve had success, but this is a massive oversimplification. Unfortunately, the press case is not helped when idiots like Jon Gaunt roll out the “you should have kept it in your trousers” line, once again helping to equate prurience with the exposure of wrongdoing. It’s up to the press to more precisely make the, extremely important, distinction between the right to report hypocrisy and dodgy dealing and the right to titillate. Otherwise the celebs will force the change the dodgy dealers take advantage of.
There’s so much to take on board, these three posts are as much an expression of thoughts in progress as anything. In the fourth, and final, post I’ll try to make some conclusions.