The truth about anti-tabloid hysteria

Many of the anti-Murdoch stories of the past year have been based more on rumour than reality.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Free Speech

In a vortex of irony so powerful it threatens to rupture the space-time continuum, the current handwringing over unethical tabloid journalism is giving rise to some unethical journalism of its own. The rule, post-News of the World, seems to be this: broadsheet newspapers and their celeb cheerleaders can say anything they like about the despised tabloids. Anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, false, sane or stupid. In the name of exposing the unethical practices of the low-rent press, you can apparently be as unethical as you bloody well like.

Consider the new revelations that the key voicemail messages on Milly Dowler’s mobile phone may not, after all, have been deleted by hacks from the News of the World. It seems increasingly likely that these messages, the ones whose disappearance led Milly’s parents to believe she might still be alive, were automatically deleted by Milly’s mobile-phone service provider 72 hours after the police listened to them. It is hard to overstate how key the story about tabloid tampering with Milly’s messages was to the explosion of the phone-hacking scandal earlier this year. The Guardian splashed it on its front page on 5 July 2011: ‘Paper deleted missing schoolgirl’s voicemails, giving family false hope.’

It now seems this isn’t true. The image of haggard News of the World hacks deleting Milly’s messages from afar – in the hope that this would create space for new ones, we were told – may be just that: an image, a mirage born more of broadsheet commentators’ immoveable conviction that the tabloids are EVIL than of reality. Much of the global anti-tabloid outrage hinged on this claim, this notion that the NoTW not only listened to Milly’s messages (which was bad enough) but also purposely wiped them (which was downright demonic). It is now possible that this outrage was built on a story as flimsy as your average tabloid celebrity exposé.

This isn’t the first time that anti-tabloid hysteria has flung up dubious claims. The Guardian has twice had to apologise for publishing unfounded stories about the Murdoch press. On 22 November, in another frontpage fantasy, the Guardian’s Marina Hyde claimed the Sun had sent a reporter to ‘doorstep’ Carine Patry Hoskins, a junior counsel at Lord Leveson’s inquiry into tabloid newspaper behaviour. The use of such tabloid tactics against a counsel at an inquiry into tabloid ethics was the equivalent of the Sun ‘casually defecating on his lordship’s desk’, said Hyde. But, sticking with the faecal metaphor, her story was bullshit, completely made up, and the Guardian subsequently published an apology.

On 15 July, the Guardian apologised to the Sun after accusing it of hacking into the medical records of former prime minister Gordon Brown’s son. In a frontpage story published on 12 July, the Guardian claimed that reporters from the Sun had illegally poked their snouts into the Brown family records and discovered that one of the former PM’s sons had cystic fibrosis. This led Brown to make a 32-minute speech in parliament in which he denounced the feral tabloids and the ‘criminal-media nexus’ nurtured by the Murdoch empire. The only problem is that the Sun did not illegally access the Brown family’s medical records, and once again the Guardian was forced to apologise.

Time and again, things are said about the tabloids which later prove to be untrue or utterly unsubstantiated – though not before they spread like wildfire around the world. (As Twain said: ‘A lie will go round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.’) So on the basis of the notes made by private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, we’ve been told for the past year that 6,000 people had their phones hacked by the News of the World; now we’re told the number is closer to 800, and even these are only potential victims. Hugh Grant’s claim that his flat was burgled by tabloid hacks has entered public consciousness, despite there being zero proof that it happened. Alastair Campbell’s claim that Cherie Blair’s phone was hacked was widely reported, despite his reluctant caveat about having ‘no proof’. It is ‘at least possible’ her phone was hacked, he said. And on it goes.

What we have here is not simply journalists jumping the gun and running with stories that haven’t been fully fact-checked. Rather, the rumours and accusations swirling around the tabloids speak to the Salem-like atmosphere that has been created post-News of the World. As in all witch-hunting moments, from Salem in the seventeenth century to McCarthyism in the twentieth, the current trial-of-the-tabloids is unleashing all sorts of whispering campaigns about alleged acts of evil and depravity. Swept up in a climate of anti-tabloid hate, the modern-day denouncers of the witches of Wapping seem to find it increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fantasy, reality from rumour. The line between their job as reporters and their emotions as despisers of mass newspapers has become dangerously blurred.

Perhaps the most striking thing is the double standards. The tabloids are being hauled over the coals for their denigration of the profession of journalism, by journalists who seem to have wilfully, almost gaily, abandoned any serious commitment to objectivity and truth. It seems increasingly clear that serious journalism will not be boosted and improved by its present hounding of lesser press outlets, but rather will become even more shot through with emotionalism and snobbish zeal than it already is.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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