After the News of the World, who’s safe?
The unprecedented harrying to extinction of a tabloid newspaper is likely to have a chilling effect across the British media.
Around the world, miles of column inches and hours of television and radio debate have been devoted to the closure of the News of the World. And yet the gravity of what occurred yesterday, the unprecedented, head-turningly historic nature of it, has not been grasped anywhere. A newspaper of some 168 years’ standing, a public institution patronised by millions of people, has been wiped from history – not as a result of some jackbooted military intrusion or intolerant executive decree or coup d’état, but under pressure from so-called liberal campaigners who ultimately felt disgust for the newspaper’s ‘culture’. History should record yesterday as a dark day for press freedom.
In a civilised society we tend to associate the loss of a newspaper, the pressured shutting down of a media outlet, with some major corrosion of public or democratic values. We look upon the extinction of a paper for non-commercial reasons, whatever the paper’s reputation or sins, as a sad thing, normally the consequence of a tyrannical force stamping its boot and its authority over the upstarts of the media. Yet yesterday’s loss of a newspaper has given rise, at best, to speculative analysis of what is going on inside News International, or at worst to expressions of schadenfreude and glee that the four million dimwits who liked reading phone-hacked stories about Wayne Rooney on a Sunday morning will no longer be at liberty to do so. Many of those politically sensitive commentators who shake their heads in solemn fury upon hearing that a newspaper in a place like Belarus has closed down have barely been able to contain their excitement about the self-immolation of a tabloid here at home.
Many people, including us at spiked, had reservations about the News of the World’s mode of behaviour, especially following this week’s revelations of deplorable phone-hacking activity involving murdered teenager Milly Dowler and the families of dead British soldiers. The paper undoubtedly infuriated many people, too. Yet this was a longstanding public institution. Just because a newspaper is the private property of an individual – even if that individual is Rupert Murdoch – does not detract from the fact that it is also a public institution, with an historic reputation and an ongoing political and social engagement with a regular, in this case numerically formidable readership. That such a public institution can be dispensed with so swiftly, that a huge swathe of the British people can overnight be deprived of an institution they had a close relationship with, ought to be causing way more discomfort and concern than it is. How would we feel if other public institutions – the BBC, perhaps, or parliament – were likewise to disappear?
The treatment of the closure of the News of the World as merely a big news story, rather than as a spectacularly unprecedented thing, speaks to an inability to grapple with the political and cultural influences behind the rise and rise of the hacking scandal and the anti-Murdoch moral crusade. What yesterday’s events confirm most of all is the emptying out of the right, the extent to which the right-wing sections of political and public life have lost the capacity or the willingness to withstand pressure and give a lead. Instead they balk at criticism, roll over in the face of attack, and think little, it seems, of bringing to an end one of the key media outlets for their way of thinking. It is this defensiveness on the right which in turn morally empowers what are erroneously referred to as the ‘liberal’ sections of public life, the anti-tabloid, ‘respectable’ media and political classes, which feel emboldened to harry and hound their increasingly at-sea opponents. Fundamentally, the hacking scandal points to a shift in the Culture Wars themselves, with an isolated right on one side and emboldened illiberal liberals on the other.
Indeed, one of the great ironies of the media debate about the hacking scandal over the past week is that it has depicted Murdoch as an immensely powerful force that can devour politicians, even entire political parties, and squish other media outlets at will. The truth, as we now know, is that the so-called Murdoch Empire is very much on the backfoot, frantic and frightened, while the ‘liberal media’ have demonstrated their capacity to mobilise the forces of the state – parliament and the police – in the pursuit of certain agendas. The overestimation of Murdoch’s power and the underestimation of the influence of the illiberal liberals, the uncritical acceptance by many of the ‘Murdoch controls Britain’ narrative, is perhaps another reason why some are unable to compute the enormity of yesterday’s events.
It is very important to point out that the influential anti-hacking, anti-News of the World campaign is not really motored by a true concern for journalistic integrity. More fundamentally it is underpinned by a cultural aversion to the outlook and the politics of the tabloid world. That is why so many politicians said yesterday evening that the closure of the News of the World is a good start, but doesn’t resolve the problematic ‘culture’ of Murdoch’s low-rent titles. A self-described ‘high-minded’ columnist in The Times, keen to distance itself from its stablemate the News of the World, says there are ‘several journalisms in Britain’ – there’s the one ‘represented by people like me and those I have worked with at The Times, the Independent and the Guardian’ and then there are ‘our exotic colleagues’. Hugh Grant, actor-turned-hero-of-the-anti-hacking-campaign, put it more bluntly on BBC 1’s Question Time: ‘I’m not for regulating the proper press, the broadsheet press. But we need regulation of the tabloid press.’ There you have it: this is about Us and Them, the Enlightened and the Annoying. There are proper people and improper ones, decent media and scummy media, and the latter must be policed and possibly punished. Who will be the next victim of this great shrinking of What It Is Permissible To Publish? The Daily Mail? The Sunday Express? Surely the Sunday Sport, with its nonsense stories and naked girls, must go? Yes, stamp it out.
You don’t have to have been a fan of the News of the World, still less of its recent indefensible antics, to recognise that the anti-Murdoch moral crusade is likely to have a chilling effect on the British media and on press freedom. British journalism is having its cojones removed. It is being ‘tidied up’ under the threat of being subjected to a judicial review into press standards, a strengthened Press Complaints Commission, or exposure by a ‘liberal media’ offended by tabloid culture. These developments need more serious treatment than they have so far received. Which is why next week on spiked, we will explore what they reveal about the Culture Wars and what they mean for the freedom of the press and the future of the tabloids.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.