What’s really motoring this anti-Murdoch crusade?
What the News of the World is alleged to have done is terrible and indefensible. But the fury about it is being driven by something else.
What is motoring the moral outrage over the claims that the News of the World hacked the mobile phone of Milly Dowler? What the paper allegedly did – tap into Milly’s voicemail while she was still missing in 2002 but before her dead body was found – is terrible and indefensible. Indeed, it is striking that nobody, including bruised executives at News International, is trying to defend it. This was not journalism, but voyeurism, and even worse it was voyeurism involving a missing teenage girl who was later found murdered.
However, this is not the first time that one of the British tabloids has behaved in a low and morally compromised fashion. So why has this instance of tabloid malfeasance given rise to such a vocal political and media crusade against the News of the World?
Even some of those involved in the campaign recognise that there is a disparity between their earlier reaction to breaches of morality by tabloid newspapers and their reaction to this one. The campaigner who has successfully managed to get some big corporations to withdraw their advertising from the News of the World says she had previously learned to live with a ‘generalised, low-level irritation with the content of some of the tabloids’, yet following the Milly Dowler revelations those ‘years of irritation were transformed into rage’. Others have referred to the Dowler claims as ‘a tipping point’, arguing that we knew Murdoch’s tabloids were value-free and ethics-lite, but we didn’t know ‘they were this bad’.
In truth, there has been a distinct lack of journalistic integrity amongst some of the tabloids (and other media outlets) for many years now. For example, in 1988 the News of the World hounded the mentally ill EastEnders actor David Scarboro, not only revealing that he was in a psychiatric institution but also publishing photos of the institution and describing Scarboro as ‘mad’. Forced, under the glare of tabloid publicity, to flee the institution, Scarboro committed suicide by leaping off Beachy Head. He was just 20 years old. More famously, or rather infamously, the Sun libelled Liverpool football supporters following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, falsely claiming that they had pickpocketed and urinated on dead and dying fans. There are many other instances over the past 30 years where the tabloids have used harassment and intimidation to get stories that have sometimes ruined people’s lives or denigrated the dead.
Yet none of those episodes gave rise to a widespread anti-tabloid campaign that galvanised prime ministers, opposition leaders, the respectable media, political activists and lawyers, as the Milly Dowler revelations have. Nor did they result in three-hour emergency debates in the House of Commons, with politicians battling it out to see who could express the most vociferous disdain for tabloid culture. The most striking thing about the anti-Murdoch campaign that has been so speedily consolidated over the past 48 hours is that it includes a smorgasbord of people who are normally at each other’s throats – from Conservative MPs to left-wing agitators, from big businesses such as William Hill and Coca-Cola (which are withdrawing their adverts from the News of the World) to religious spokespeople.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what is really fuelling this broad, all-encompassing, remarkably consensual anti-Murdoch fury is not any sudden rediscovery of the importance of journalistic ethics, or any convincing evidence that this tabloid intrusion is qualitatively worse than what was done to Scarboro or Scouse football fans in the past, but rather an external political need. It is today’s broader cultural thirst for scandal, for the exposure of some terrible deed or wrongdoing against which people might rally and define themselves, which has led to this latest episode of tabloid misconduct being treated, in the words of one reporter, as ‘a great evil’.
It is clear that it is not any revived commitment to the importance of journalistic integrity which is driving the Guardian’s moral crusade and other people’s Milly-related campaigning. If it were, then we might expect these media outlets also to be outraged by other recent, albeit less shocking breaches of journalistic integrity. Yet when it was revealed, for example, that the BBC’s flagship current affairs show Panorama had faked footage of Indian children stitching clothes for Western consumers, most journalists turned a blind eye, or else duplicitously said that the faked footage gave us a glimpse into a bigger ‘truth’ about foreign sweatshops. Of course that instance of journalistic deceit was nowhere near as alarming as what the News of the World allegedly did to Milly Dowler’s phone. But the comparatively shoulder-shrugging response to it shows that it certainly is not the resuscitation of journalistic integrity that has made the Milly incident into such a big story.
No, there is something else going on here. In essence, the Dowler revelations have satisfied a need for scandal amongst the political and media elite and various activists. Ours is an era in which the exposure of scandal, followed by public and even preening expressions of moral outrage over that scandal, is a highly prized political activity. Today, political movements, or at least political moments, only really seem to emerge and gain traction through the act of uncovering and wringing one’s hands over scandalous behaviour.
The focus of anti-scandal fury can change from one month to another. Over the past couple of years, everyone from expenses-claiming MPs to greedy bankers to evil tabloid hacks has become the focus of exposure, finding themselves on the receiving end of furious, if quite fleeting, campaigns of moral disgust and bombast. There isn’t a great deal that links the MP who claims expenses for taxis with the banker who plays the ‘financial casino’ or with the tabloid hack who taps into celebs’ or crime victims’ phones. Some of this behaviour is legal, some of it is illegal; some is immoral, some is just morally neutral. Yet what the exposure of each of these very different groups of people satisfies is today’s free-floating need to find an outlet for the expression of moral fury, of what feels like an urgent and real feeling of anger about something. In essence, what we have today is scandal-in-reverse: the outraged reaction already exists, permanently, and it just needs to find something to exercise itself in relation to. At a time of political and moral disarray, the discovery of scandal allows for the exercising of something that is increasingly rare and hard to come by: moral certainty, or at least a fantasy about Good taking a stand against Bad.
The great irony is that this is the same game played by the News of the World itself, only it took the search-for-scandal to quite pathological levels. With its trawling of celebrities’ and royals’ and grieving parents’ mobile-phone messages, the NoTW, too, was cynically looking out for signs of scandalous activity that it might exercise its moral angst over and manufacture some public discontent about. Now, with their drip, drip of revelations about what allegedly goes on inside the sinister Murdoch Empire, the crusaders at the Guardian and various politicians and activists are hoping to achieve the same level of moral satisfaction that comes with uncovering and ridiculing wicked behaviour.
We at spiked are concerned about issues such as journalistic integrity and the level of public and political debate. We also recognise that tabloid culture, and celebrity culture in particular, is far from a wonderful thing. What we increasingly have today is not real journalism, but rather printed sheets that cultivate a culture of voyeurism. However, none of these pressing problems is really being addressed in the scandal-by-numbers of the Milly-related anti-Murdoch crusade.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.
(Update, 16 November 2011: David Scarboro’s father responds.)