‘You cannot pluck the rose without the thorn’
The death of a free press, the hacking off of investigative journalism - the scandals nobody is talking about.
What do you think about hacking into the phone messages of abducted teenager Milly Dowler or the relatives of other victims of murder, terrorism or war? Are you for or against it? Personally, having weighed it carefully, I think it’s a bad thing. And so it seems does every other human being who has commented, including everybody associated with the News of the World and the detective who is said to have carried out these acts of phone-hacking for that ex-newspaper. Nobody is trying to defend the indefensible.
When everybody is repeating the same thing, particularly in tones of moral outrage, you can be pretty sure that there are other uncomfortable questions left unasked. So let us, just for a moment, talk about something else. Such as the responses to the scandal which threaten to make everything worse. You do not need to be a champion of Rupert Murdoch’s empire or a fan of the News of the World (and, despite having taken the ‘Murdoch shilling’ by writing for The Times, I am neither) to see that there are other scandals developing here, almost unchallenged. To name just a few:
The scandal of the closure of a popular newspaper being celebrated as a triumph of democracy. Labour leader Ed Miliband said the end of the News of the World was a victory for ‘people power’, and many others on the liberal left celebrated the death of their tabloid bête-noire as if they had won an election. In fact, the pressure that did for Britain’s best-selling newspaper, read by millions of actual people each Sunday for 160-odd years, was generated by a relative handful of modish journalists and online ‘activists’ (active with their typing fingers anyway). It was less a triumph for people’s democracy than a confirmation of the tyranny of the intolerant Twittertariat.
The British petit-bourgeois intelligentsia has always feared and despised mass newspapers and the vulgar throng who consume them (for the history of this elitist disdain, see John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses). More recently they have turned ‘tabloid’ into a swear word and blamed the Murdoch redtops for brainwashing the public – a convenient let-off for their own inability to win a political argument with normal newspaper readers. Now at last they have succeeded in depriving the public of their allegedly mind-altering Sunday fix. Oh Brave New World, that does not have the News of the World in it! The illiberal liberals would only be happier if they could have extinguished Murdoch’s Sun, too. Jarvis Cocker of Pulp (great music, shame about the politics) symbolically wiped his arse with the final edition of the News of the World on stage at a music festival on Sunday. Why didn’t the sanitisation police just go the whole hog and burn the evil tabloid at the stake?
The scandal that British politics has become an arms race to see who can whip the press hardest. Asked at the weekend what his party stands for now, the first thing Labour leader Miliband could come out with was… reform of the press. So a party of the political living dead that has abandoned any pretence of principles has finally found something to believe in. Who needs an alternative vision of the economy or the future when you can bash the tabloids? Not to be outdone, Tory prime minister David Cameron made a big speech to announce that yes, it’s all very well for the media to ‘speak truth to power’, but it’s also important that ‘those in power can tell truth to the press’. In which case, why don’t government ministries cut out the middle men and write the newspapers themselves? They could call it the Ministry of Truth (for the history of this institution, see George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). At any moment before last week, such an arrogantly censorious statement from a UK government would have sparked a furious press reaction. Yet so cowed have the media been by recent events that they uttered barely a whimper.
If this is what politics has become, little wonder that cries of ‘Hugh Grant for prime minister!’ have been heard on every celebrity chat and comedy show. It began with the Hollywood crusader for superinjunctions and censorship trying to act like the prime minister he played in the execrable Love, Actually. Now it looks as if Cameron and Miliband are actually trying to act like Hugh Grant.
The scandal of sectional interests posing as the ‘public interest’. Mention of Grant should remind us that question marks hang over many of those who have recently discovered such a heartfelt concern with journalistic standards. Is Grant the moral crusader for media regulation in any way related to the posh British actor who was splashed all over the press after being caught with his pants down with a Hollywood hooker? Has Lord John Prescott the outraged critic of the tabloids ever met the buffoonish Labour deputy prime minister who was made into an even grosser figure of ridicule by the papers’ exposure of his affair with his secretary? Does Chris Bryant, who has toured every news studio to denounce the Murdoch press, remember the young Labour MP exposed in the press for posting pictures of himself in his underpants on a gay sex website? And so it goes on.
Ours is an age in which it often seems nobody can offer any strong opinion without being accused of acting on behalf of some ‘special interest group’ or of protecting narrow economic interests. Yet in this case the usually clear-eyed cynical commentariat appears to be suffering from collective selective amnesia, unable to see any connection between the past well-publicised antics of outraged celebrities and politicians and their sudden passion for press reform. Instead they have all been allowed a free hand to attack ‘tabloid culture’ from behind the banner of ‘the public interest’ – a standard which is not, of course, to be set by the lowly public themselves, but by high-minded journalists or the judiciary.
The scandal of the hacking down of investigative journalism. In the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, the general consensus in the political class appears to be that the British press does too much prying into other people’s business and pokes its nose where it is not wanted much too far and too often. In fact there is already far too little investigative journalism in the UK media. And the response to the hacking scandal suggests that in future there will be even less of it.
What the News of the World was alleged to have done to Milly Dowler and other victims and relatives was not, of course, journalism. As spiked pointed out from the start, it was voyeurism. The problem was not so much the phone-hacking of private information – such tactics could be justified in pursuit of a story in another situation. It was that these things were done for no purpose other than to spy on personal feelings and prey on the emotions of victims and their relatives. Such a voyeuristic attitude is not, it should be noted, entirely confined to the News of the World; all mainstream media outlets have become obsessed with reporting feelings as much as facts in recent years.
The irony is that the News of the World was also almost the only British newspaper that still put serious resources into investigating stories and making the news, rather than simply reprinting what it was handed. Its exposés of corruption and hypocrisy often dominated the following week’s news. Some of us might not always have approved of the subjects it chose to investigate. But that should surely have been a cue for more probing investigative journalism of a different stripe. Instead there is now likely to be even less boldness in that direction in the face of the outcry about hacking – and whatever replaces the News of the World on Sundays could well be a pale imitation. In the furore about phone-hacking, it seems to have been forgotten not only that investigative journalism is crucial to public debate, but that it will always involve underhand methods, since it is about finding out what others don’t want you to know.
The scandal of a free press left to die slowly, unmourned. This is the worst undiscussed scandal of all. The harrying to closure of the News of the World by illiberal liberals marks a milestone on the road to ruin. Yet it has been met in media circles not with outraged protests, but with the familiar mix of cynicism and naivety: cynicism that claims it is simply a ‘business decision’ by the Murdochs (as if killing your cash cow was good business), and naivety that suggests you can ‘clean up’ and regulate the tabloid press while miraculously leaving ‘good journalism’ untouched.
In reality, the more influence that ministers, judges, policemen, commissions and crusaders are able to exercise over the media, the less freedom of expression there is going to be for all. Freedom of the press, like any freedom, is not divisible. You cannot have more controls on the ‘bad’ and let the ‘good’ (whatever that might be) run free. As a wise German wrote 170 years ago, ‘lack of freedom is the real mortal danger for mankind…. [L]eaving aside the moral consequences, bear in mind that you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns! And what do you lose with a free press?’
As that man Karl Marx also wrote, a ‘bad’ free press is always better than a ‘good’ controlled one – if you hope to get to the truth about politics, war, or scandals.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.