A respectable riot against tabloid readers
The interrogation of Rebekah Brooks over the NotW exposing paedophiles only exposed the prejudices behind the Leveson inquisition.
When the former editor of the Sun and the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks, appeared before the Leveson Inquiry into the UK press last week, all of the headlines were about the fascinating revelation that prime minister David Cameron did not know what ‘LOL’ meant when he used it to sign off at the end of text messages to Ms Brooks. While the sophisticated Leveson groupies in the media were LOL at this bit of middle-class gossip (so much for the high-minded ‘ethical’ journalism they keep preaching about), another little-noticed exchange between Brooks and her inquisitors spoke volumes about the prejudice behind the entire Leveson circus.
This exchange confirmed that the crusade to tame tabloid newspapers is at root an attempt to regulate the vulgar mass of tabloid readers. As ever, hatred of the popular press is a code for expressing fear and loathing of the populace who read it.
It came on the subject of paedophiles, a subject always close to the News of the World’s heart. In 2000, after eight-year old Sarah Payne had been murdered by a convicted child sex offender, the Sunday tabloid launched a campaign for ‘Sarah’s Law’, modelled on Megan’s Law in the US, which would allow the public to find out if known sex offenders were living in their area. In support of the campaign, NotW editor Brooks splashed photos and details of convicted sex offenders across the paper’s front page.
This outraged police chiefs and the liberal media at the time, and Robert Jay QC, the counsel to the Leveson Inquiry, revisited that outrage last week. Such a tabloid front page, he told Brooks, was bound to spark violent reprisals. Attacks on suspected sex offenders would be a ‘natural and foreseeable consequence of a sensationalised campaign’. When Brooks dared to disagree and said that she had not foreseen any such reprisals, Jay insisted his suggestion that the paper’s front page would lead to reprisals was a ‘proposition which might seem obvious as a matter of common sense’, the ‘natural and probable consequence of your actions’. This, he lectured Brooks, would be ‘patently obvious to anyone else’, apart, presumably, from a bigoted tabloid newspaper editor. It was ‘inflammatory to publish in the News of the World the names and photographs of known sex offenders, with the foreseeable consequence that there might be physical violence’. Jay concluded that it was inevitable, as ‘plain as a pikestaff’, that violent repercussions would follow.
Brooks continued to disagree with the exasperated Jay, while conceding that there had been two reported incidents of reprisals, described as ‘the paediatrician situation’ and ‘the riot in Paul’s Grove’, of which more in a moment. At the end of all this, Lord Justice Leveson himself butted in to support his legal lackey Jay. Leveson wanted to make it clear that the News of the World was entitled to run its campaign – ‘That’s what freedom in our society means’. But – and there is always a but attached to press freedom these days – not like that. He suggested to Brooks that if she ‘had appreciated that the public might react in the way in which it did in the two incidents’ – that is, if she had shared the hindsight wisdom of Mr Jay – she would have ‘rethought whether that aspect of the campaign should be run’.
So there we have it. In the eyes of our legal elite, it is ‘obvious’, ‘natural’ and ‘as plain as a pikestaff’ that the millions of News of the World readers were really a lynch mob in waiting. All it needed was an ‘inflammatory’ front page from their favourite Sunday paper to set light to the ignorant bigotry of this wooden-headed collective, and make them leave behind their Sunday roast to go and torch a few suspected paedophiles. It was notable how easily the good Lord Justice Leveson generalised from those two reported incidents to suggest that she should have known ‘the public might react’ violently. The public – that’s us – were all in it altogether.
So what of those two reported incidents? One, ‘the paediatrician situation’, refers to the infamous incident where the said paediatrician in South Wales had ‘paedo’ daubed on her house by somebody who did not know the difference between a children’s doctor and a child abuser. Ever since, this has been reported in horrified terms as the work of a ‘mob’ which terrified the paediatrician and, according to some reports, drove or burned her out of her home. In fact, as spiked’s Brendan O’Neill’s has shown before, these sensational reports bear little relation to an incident where the doctor came home to find the graffito on her home, most probably daubed there, according to police, by local children. And that was that. (See Whispering game, BBC News, by Brendan O’Neill.)
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The other incident, ‘the Paul’s Grove riot’, was more serious. When mothers on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth discovered that a sex offender was living in a local flat, trouble ensued. The flat in question was attacked, others were damaged and the estate got caught up in several summer evenings of unrest, with TV cameras on hand to record women leading their children in a chorus of ‘Hang him!’.
Unedifying stuff, of course. But it is far too simple to generalise from that one-off incident, or to pin the blame for it on a tabloid front page. In the summer of 2000, Britain was in the throes of a full-blown paedophile panic, encouraged not just by the ‘inflammatory’ News of the World but by respectable bodies from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to the New Labour government. The Sex Offenders’ Register had already been legislated for in the dying days of the last Tory government in 1997 and implemented by New Labour with great fanfare. This lumped together everybody from rapists and child sex offenders to teenagers having underage sex and men downloading forbidden images from the internet. Yet because it was shrouded in official secrecy, the impression created was that 100,000 predatory paedophiles were stalking the land. (Indeed, Rebekah Brooks conceded last week that she had been wrong to publish the details of men simply because they were on the register.) Wherever could those Paulsgrove rioters have got the idea that their children were at imminent risk from the ‘paedo’ in the playground or next door?
The Paulsgrove women made as easy targets as those they went after. For the respectable media they became the barbaric personification of the tabloid-devouring masses, ‘an alien race’ as one broadsheet columnist put it. That is exactly the same language many witnesses at Leveson have used to describe tabloid journalists – and, by implication, those who read them. Brooks accused Leveson’s lawyer of taking the opinion of the Guardian. That might be said of the entire inquiry.
I criticised the NotW campaign at the time, and carry no torch for Rebekah Brooks, who has now been charged with perverting the course of justice over the phone-hacking investigation that led to the closure of the News of the World (a charge she ‘vigorously’ denies). But I am far more worried about the way that the Leveson Inquisition and its many supporters are stirring up a respectable riot against the popular media as an acceptable way of attacking the masses. The elitist bigotry behind the civilised legal façade is becoming as plain as a pikestaff.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)