Goodbye, Cruel World

C J Schuler

The revelation that The Sun and the Sunday Times and the Sun illegally obtained personal information about Gordon Brown and his family demonstrates that the phone hacking scandal does not stop with the now-defunct News of the World.

But does it stop at the gates of Wapping, or is it reflective of a wider culture? The finger of blame has been pointed at News International and its proprietor Rupert Murdoch, at the former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks and her then deputy Andy Coulson, and the private investigator Glen Mulcaire; while the Press Complaints Committee and the Metropolitan Police have received their share of flak for their lily-livered failure to deal with the crisis.

But except for a few plucky exceptions, such as Will Self on Newsnight and Janet Street-Porter in the Independent on Sunday, no one has pointed the finger at the 2.7 million members of the public who actually bought this rag, and without whose appetite for scandal News International would not have found it worthwhile to spend a fortune on the services of Mr Mulcaire and his colleagues.

It’s easy to see why. No politician wants to alienate a slab of the electorate; no media organization wishes to antagonize a large section of the public; and – in an age that has lost the ability to distinguish between democracy and popularism – few commentators dare risk the taint of today’s most dreaded heresy, elitism.

Who wants to be characterized as a po-faced puritan, priggishly condemning a plucky, sparky, irreverent brand of humour that’s as British and bacon and eggs? Such are the sentimental clichés used to perfume the NoW’s poisonous blend of nosiness and bullying.

Most improbable of all are the claims that it was a great investigative newspaper. Excuse me if I’ve missed something, but which serious investigative stories has it broken in recent years? MPs’ expenses? No, that was the Telegraph. The dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast by the multinational Trafigura? No, that was The Independent. Wikileaks? Nope, The Guardian.

What have been the NoW’s great investigative scoops of recent years? Oh yes, a snooker player took a bung. And Starbucks was needlessly pouring millions of gallons of water down its sinks – worth campaigning against for sure, but scarcely, er, Watergate.

The truth is that the NoW’s idea of ‘investigative journalism’ usually amounted to little more than tittle-tattle about the sex lives of footballers and minor celebrities – as though the fact that a lot of sad people seem to be interested in this rubbish meant that its revelation is in the public interest.

And when the line between celebrity gossip and genuinely horrific stories of abduction and murder becomes blurred, so that the latter begin to be treated like the former, with the victims and protagonists (whom we do not actually know in reality) called by their first names, and suspects by their surnames (as if already convicted), we have completely lost our moral compass – and hacking a dead girl’s phone seems an OK thing to do.

Even before the Brown revelations, it wasn’t confined to the NoW. A week ago the Attorney General stated that articles on the Joanna Yates case in the Mirror and the Sun were in contempt of court because their descriptions of the murdered woman’s landlord Christopher Jeffries were prejudicial. The thrust of these articles was that because Jeffries, a mildly eccentric retired teacher with blue-rinsed hair, didn’t fit the red-top hacks’ rather narrow definition of ‘normality’ (you’d think they’d get out more, wouldn’t you?), he must be a suspect.

Let’s not fool ourselves that the problem is confined to the red-tops either. The pressure to reveal the ‘personal angle’ of every story – however inappropriate – is also undermining the journalism of the quality newspapers as well. One of Britain’s most respected social commentators once told me of her anger at being asked to churn out yet another piece on the Madeleine McCann story after she had clearly expressed the view, in print, that in the absence of new evidence any further speculation added nothing to our understanding but simply fuelled a ghoulish media circus. And in the McCann case, just as in that of Joanna Yates, a man we now know to be innocent had his life wrecked by irresponsible speculation

There is a parallel with the banking crisis here. When the burden of sub-prime lending brought several major banks to the brink of ruin, public and politicians were quick to blame the bankers. They certainly deserved their share of the blame, but didn’t we, the public, deserve our share of it too? After all, no one was forcing us to borrow money we hadn’t earned to buy materialist junk we didn’t need.

Similarly, nobody was forced to read the NoW.  The public revulsion at the revelation that the paper hacked Milly Dowler’s mobile phone smacks of the rage of Caliban on seeing his reflection in the water. After all, it was the public’s own craving to know every detail – details which the public really has no business to know – that drove the NoW’s agents to such extremes. If the results are ugly, it’s because our wishes are ugly. They shame us as a society, and shame us as individuals.

If that view makes me snobbish, then I’m proud to be a snob. Humourless? Then I’m proud to be humourless. Elitist? Then I’m proud to be an elitist.

In fact, the snobbery lies in not raising the issue, because underneath that silence lies the patrician assumption that ‘the poor dears can’t help it.’ We can help it. We don’t have to read junk news any more than we have to eat junk food. We can choose to raise our eyes above the gutter. We can be big enough, grown-up enough, wise enough, humane enough, not to indulge our morbid curiosity; to respect reticence, privacy and dignity in others – and to cultivate those qualities in ourselves.

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  • Expatnhappy

    Well said, Sir. It is good to read something written by a journalist about popular “culture” I agree with 100 per cent

  • Chris W

    Are we not not in a certain aspect as “the public” conditioned/led into what we can and must buy. 

    yes we have free will but with advertisements, placements, marketing etc our choice is effected.An example is Tesco selling “what the consumer wants” when in effect you can only buy what they stock.You can only buy what is sold as a newspaper..Its a self fulfilling prophecy in that respect.

  • a-craig

    Terrific column Chris. I agree with it all except that I think, long ago, the NoW was less poisonous. I have long suspected however that the real reason why newspaper circulations sinking is due in part to more and more people’s revulsion at the general level of bitchiness and inaccuracy which pervades all papers.

  • Chaotopia

    Stop the Murdoch bid by signing the following petitions:

    Send an Email to your MP:

    Spread the word as far and as wide as you possibly can and let people power do the rest.

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