‘We name and shame the evil tabloid hacks!’
The cultural elite’s crusade against News International is only a more erudite version of the News of the World’s war on perverts.
The furore that surrounds the demise of the News of the World has little to do with the specific morally corrupt practices at that tabloid. Rather, as with other highly stylised outbursts of outrage in recent years – from ‘cash for questions’ to the MPs’ expenses scandal to bankers’ bonuses – this is a media-constructed and media-led furore. The main reason the sordid phone-hacking affair has become the mother of all scandals is because the media assume that anything which affects them is far more important than the troubles facing normal human beings.
Outrage-mongering, which is essentially an accomplishment of the media, is parasitical on today’s depoliticised and disorganised public life. In the absence of true political conviction, of any meaningful political alternative, strongly held views have been replaced by expressions of frustration and outrage. In such circumstances, the cultural elite can substitute its own agenda for that of the public, and in effect an outraged media reality becomes the reality.
Over the past week, many have claimed that the News of the World’s phone-hacking practices have offended the British public. Time and again, journalists claim to have detected a powerful public revulsion against the machinations of News International. Even a sensible columnist like Matthew d’Ancona argues that ‘David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch are swept up in a public fit of morality’. In truth, this ‘public fit of morality’ is actually confined to a relatively narrow stratum of British society. People in the pub or on the streets are not having animated debates about the News of the World’s heinous behaviour. Rather it is the Twitterati and those most directly influenced by the cultural elite and its lifestyle and identity who are emotionally drawn to the anti-Murdoch crusade.
Take the example of Justine Roberts. She runs the parenting website Mumsnet and is the partner of Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian. She claims that Mumsnet users’ outrage about the phone-hacking scandal is the most intense she has ever witnessed on the website. No doubt ‘intense outrage’ is exactly what she and her mates feel towards the News of the World. Yet those who run the competing website Netmums report that, while many of their users were angry about phone hacking, a far larger number were interested in the online discussion about sports than the discussion about the News of the World. Netmums says the difference in attitude between the visitors to these sites is down to the fact that their participants are likely to be less cosmopolitan than those who use Mumsnet.
Public outrage, like public opinion, is not always as it seems. Often, when people speak on behalf of public opinion, or claim merely to be responding to outrage, what they are really expressing is their own views and those of their friends. Since its discovery in the eighteenth century, public opinion has tended to be represented in a way that flatters those who claim to represent it. In fact, numerous writers have tended to manufacture ‘public opinion’, conveniently discovering that it holds and expresses the same views that are held by some self-selected group of educated members of the elite.
In one of the first English-language studies of public opinion, William Mackinnon wrote: ‘Public opinion may be said to be that sentiment on any given subject which is entertained by the best informed, most intelligent, and most moral persons in the community.’ Mackinnon’s narrow definition of public opinion, written in 1828, was significantly more candid than the outpourings of those who currently try to present elite views as the opinion of the masses.
Of course, all of us have a tendency to project our beliefs on to other people, and no doubt the vanguard of the anti-Murdoch camp has genuinely convinced itself that it is the authentic voice of Britain. Those who live by the reality of the media can easily lose sight of the other reality: that is, the one that most people live by. So Labour Party leader Ed Miliband can refer to the demise of the News of the World as the result of a heroic display of people power. ‘It is clearly people power that has forced this decision’, he declared. Well, of course it is – if by ‘the people’ Miliband is referring to the metropolitan cultural oligarchy. Depicting a media insider-led coup as an expression of people power is a self-serving fantasy. Will history characterise a campaign from above which involved a few hundred people and which succeeded in shutting down a newspaper read by millions as an expression of people power? I think not.
My argument is not that the views of the media do not matter. They do, and the media is frequently successful in its attempts to influence people’s attitudes and imagination. Indeed, the News of the World itself was very effective at transforming its readers’ insecurities into a kind of morally disorienting outrage.
Outrage from below and outrage from above
The News of the World’s ‘name and shame’ campaign against paedophiles in the year 2000 demonstrated how quickly vigilante journalism can turn people’s anxieties into outrage. Preying on the public’s fear of so-called predatory paedophiles, the paper’s campaign successfully provoked groups of anxious parents into organising vigilante groups. It showed that the systematic cultivation of outrage can turn fear into something like mob rule.
Readers’ responses to the News of the World’s name-and-shame campaign expressed, if not Miliband’s ‘people power’, then certainly a form of public outrage. But this was the outrage of people living on council estates, the kind of uncouth, badly educated people who are often dismissed as brainless tabloid readers. There were, of course, some very good reasons to be appalled by the somewhat frenzied atmosphere created by the name-and-shame campaign. But the main reason members of the metropolitan elite tended to be hostile to it was because this was an expression of outrage from below, springing from and representing the malevolent universe of the tabloid reader.
If William Mackinnon had been alive, he would have described the frenzied atmosphere around the name-and-shame campaign as a form of ‘popular clamour’. Mackinnon and his nineteenth-century co-thinkers made a distinction between the opinion of the educated public and the opinion of the rest of society – that is, they distinguished between ‘public opinion’ (good) and ‘popular clamour’ (bad). Mackinnon wrote: ‘Popular clamour may be said to be that sort of feeling, arising from the passion of a multitude acting without consideration; or an excitement created amongst the uneducated, or amongst those who do not reflect, or do not exercise their judgement on the point in question.’ He made a very clear moral contrast between the ‘clamour’ of those who do not reflect on things, and the ‘opinion’ of those who do. Today, this contrast has been recast as the outrage of those who matter (outrage from above) against the outrage of those who do not matter (outrage from below).
The News of the World turned the cultivation of outrage-from-below into an art form. And paradoxically, its demise is largely due to the outrage-from-above directed against it by its opponents. The groupthink, groupspeak and low-life moralising of the crusade against the Evil Murdoch Empire is the cultural elite’s equivalent of the anti-paedophile name-and-shame campaign. These two campaigns have far more in common than they would ever admit. In the case of the vigilante mob, the hysterical search for perverts became a way of evading the routine existential problems that face people in difficult circumstances. And the moral outrage now directed at News International is also motivated by the impulse of evasion. It is a displacement activity for those bereft of political imagination, who prefer moral condemnation to the project of coming up with and articulating an alternative.
What both of these campaigns indicate is that the politicisation of outrage renders public life utterly simplistic. Such outrage offers us scapegoats, but never any solutions.
A powerful mood of cultural dissonance prevails in British society today. Under the surface, there is an increasingly uneasy relationship between conflicting values and lifestyles. Sometimes it appears as if the cultural elite and ‘the rest’ live in entirely different worlds. Such dissonance is particularly striking in relation to how the tabloids are perceived. For the cosmopolitan elites, the tabloid is a lowlife and degenerate form of media, which could only possibly be considered satisfying or interesting by morally inferior people. For the millions of people who buy these papers, they are merely sources of news and entertainment.
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