Tickled to death

The Leveson Enquiry into the UK hacking scandal is drawing to a close, yet the future of a new press regulatory body remains controversial. Enda O’Doherty asks what the enquiry’s findings mean for a definition of journalistic standards and the proper relation between politics and media.

Tickle the public, make ’em grin,
The more you tickle, the more you win;
Teach the public, you’ll never get rich,
You’ll live like a beggar and die in a ditch.


In April 1983 the distinguished historian Hugh Trevor Roper (Lord Dacre) flew to Switzerland to examine what Stern magazine claimed were Hitler’s lost diaries (Hitler-Tagebücher), allegedly part of a large consignment of documents recovered from the wreckage of an aircraft that crashed near Dresden in April 1945. Trevor Roper, who was acting on behalf of the Times newspaper group, of which he was a director, was not given a great deal of time to examine the diaries yet he concluded quite unambiguously: “I am now satisfied that the documents are authentic; that the history of their wanderings since 1945 is true; and that the standard accounts of Hitler’s writing habits, of his personality and, even, perhaps, of some public events, may in consequence have to be revised.” Almost immediately, however, he began to have second thoughts and anxiously conveyed his concern to Frank Giles, the editor of the Sunday Times, which was about to publish extracts. Giles informed the newspaper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, of the historian’s growing doubt about the documents’ origins. Murdoch famously responded: “Fuck Dacre. Publish.” Later, when the diaries were conclusively proven to be forgeries, he was entirely unrepentant: “After all,” he observed, “we are in the entertainment business.”

The periodical newspaper, in something like the form in which we know it today, began to emerge in Europe during the early modern period, notably in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “News”, or something very like it, had indeed appeared before, though published in book form and often quite long after the events described. There were also many bulletins (in France called occasionels if they were from the court or bureaucracy and canards or lardons if unofficial, polemical or scurrilous), but the seventeenth century saw a proliferation of publications that aspired to be offer more contemporaneous accounts of events, appearing under such titles as coranto or courant, diurnall, mercury and intelligencer. The turbulent period from 1640 to 1660 in England saw the emergence of a huge number of new periodicals, distinguished, in the words of media historian Anthony Smith, by their “rollicking intemperateness” and sheer profusion and variety. There was, of course, a multiplicity of predominantly political titles; but there were others whose relationship with their readers was of a different kind. Smith writes:

The Marine Mercury specialized in accounts of amazing sea-beasts (“A True Relation of the Strange Appearance of a Man-Fish about three miles within the River Thames, having a musket in one hand and a Petition in the other, credibly reported by Six Sailors who both saw and talked with the monster, whose names here following are inserted.”)

During periods when literacy was the preserve of a small minority of mostly prosperous or influential people there tended, in general, to be a certain upward pressure on the intellectual content and style of reading matter and of the press, which is not to say that publications could not occasionally be robust or scandalous. But the main concern of newspaper readers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may be said to have been public affairs, in which they either already played a part as citizens or aspired to do so. Alongside this there was a popular tradition of reading, or being read to, which relied chiefly on the chapbooks and broadside ballads that were sold at fairs by pedlars, and in Protestant countries of course the Bible. Unlike the Bible, the chapbooks were generally disapproved of by the establishment, including as they did, as well as some religious material, much that was entertaining, disreputable, high-spirited, and perhaps not quite believable. In Ireland, popular reading often had a distinct political dimension: Daniel O’Connell’s speeches were widely read, and read aloud, to popular audiences, for example from The Nation, while the Liberator was also celebrated in the broadside ballads. Pastorini’s prophecies, predicting the triumph of Catholicism over Protestantism, were popular in chapbook form in the 1820s, while prophecies with clear political and revolutionary implications were also adverted to in the ballad tradition.

The growth of mass literacy in the later nineteenth century provided newspaper proprietors and editors with new opportunities and new temptations. In the 1880s WT Stead introduced a number of innovations into the Pall Mall Gazette: the headline, the crosshead to break up long columns of text, the interview, the gossip column and the sustained “campaign” on a particular issue. Yet alongside his ambition to expand the Gazette‘s readership Stead had a lofty view of the newspaper’s function and importance. The telegraph and the printing press together, he wrote, “had converted Britain into a vast agora, or assembly of the whole community, in which the discussion of the affairs of State is carried on from day to day in the hearing of the whole people”. “The whole people” may have been something of an overstatement: circulations were still generally small, while the discussion of affairs of state may have seemed a not particularly fruitful use of their time by that majority of Britons who were still denied the suffrage. The Times of London, in the 1880s, had to survive on a circulation of only 60,000, but the Telegraph already had over 300,000 readers and the Daily Mail, established in the 1890s, reached a million by the outbreak of the First World War. The Mail‘s formula did not greatly impress Queen Victoria’s last prime minister, Lord Salisbury (“written by office boys for office boys”, he thought), but its proprietor, Alfred Harmsworth, nevertheless became a peer in 1905. In 1903 George Riddell took in hand an already existing title, the News of the World, aimed at the newly literate working class and strongly featuring stories from the vice courts and accounts, supplied by friendly police officers, of the workings of streetwalkers, pimps and brothels. By the outbreak of the Second World War it had achieved a circulation of four million. Riddell was raised to the peerage in 1920.

In late 2005, some of the staff of younger members of Britain’s royal family began to notice peculiar things happening to their mobile phones, in particular that messages they had yet to access were being classed as heard and saved. Simultaneously stories began to appear in the News of the World about Princes William and Harry which it seemed could only have been derived from confidential information available to a very small number of people. In early 2006 The Sun had published a story about Harry’s visit with his Sandhurst chums to a “gentleman’s club” near Slough (“Harry Buried Face In Margo’s Mega-Boobs. Stripper Jiggled … Prince Giggled”). Now the News of the World‘s royal reporter, Clive Goodman, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were working on a follow-up, and as they hacked into Harry’s phone and found there a joking message from his brother, William, about the incident, the police were also tracking them.

Scotland Yard eventually uncovered evidence that suggested an invasion of privacy on an industrial scale on the part of the News of the World, much of it involving Mulcaire. In their new book Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, Tom Watson and Martin Hickman write:

[Mulcaire] had been hacking into the mobile phone messages of princes, pop stars, TV presenters, Hollywood actors, Premiership footballers, cabinet ministers and their friends, relatives, agents and advisers. News International’s lawbreaking involved not just phones, but everything electronic, including personal computers and state archives. Through a network of corrupt police officers and public officials, Murdoch’s muckrakers could obtain private phone numbers, emails, vehicle registrations, and tax, income, employment and medical records. But their targets were not just the wealthy and famous. If misfortune called, the grieving and even the dead could be swept into the sights of his clandestine news-gatherers. On 4 July 2011, the News of the World created a bigger scandal than any it had ever investigated – when the public learned it had hacked into the voicemails of a missing thirteen-year-old schoolgirl [Milly Dowler, later found to have been murdered], and shortly afterwards, those of parents of murdered children and survivors of terrorist bombings.1

And yet the police were remarkably slow to act on what they had found or to probe the extent of possible criminality, choosing instead to focus almost entirely on the royals case. Said John Whittingdale, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in the House of Commons: “There was simply no enthusiasm among Scotland Yard to go beyond the cases involving Mulcaire and Goodman. To start exposing widespread tawdry practices in that newsroom was a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift.” In their defence the police insisted that it was not part of their brief to monitor the media (no one had asked them to), that they had limited resources and other priorities. Critics, however, observed the remarkably close relationship that existed between News International and senior police officers, both serving and retired. Another factor was the apparent ease with which retired police officers moved into private investigation agencies, whose methods were irregular, unethical and frequently illegal.

In November 2009 Les Hinton, the former executive chairman of News International, told the parliamentary committee: “There was never any evidence delivered to me suggesting that the conduct of Clive Goodman spread beyond him.” Senior figures at the group, including Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World until his resignation in 2007 and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive officer of News International until her resignation in 2011, have persisted for years in this highly implausible “one bad apple” (Goodman) defence. But if Mulcaire was working only to Goodman, who was a royal correspondent, why was he gathering material on footballers, celebrities, actors and politicians? In fact there was widespread knowledge in the trade that phone hacking was a common practice, not just at News International titles but at other newspapers too. “A dozen” former reporters told The New York Times in 2010 that hacking was pervasive at the News of the World. “Everyone knew,” one veteran said. “The office cat knew.”

Following his resignation in 2007 Andy Coulson moved onwards and upwards, becoming director of communications for the Conservative Party and then, after 2010, for the government. Meanwhile, the hacking scandal wasn’t going away. Two victims notified by the police sued the paper and negotiated settlements, one for a million pounds. This of course prompted others to hire legal firms to act on their behalf, putting pressure on the Metropolitan Police to disclose if they too had been hacked. (There is a distinction to be made between featuring in Glenn Mulcaire’s extensive list of personalities and celebrities, which runs to four pages in an appendix to Dial M, and having been provably hacked.) Said lawyer Mark Lewis: “Getting a letter from Scotland Yard that your phone is being hacked is rather like getting a Willy Wonka golden ticket. Time to queue up at Murdoch Towers to get paid.”

Not that Murdoch Towers was inclined to lie down under the assault, choosing instead to obstruct, obfuscate and, where necessary intimidate: one advantage of being in possession of so much information about everyone’s private life, and being skilled in the ways of finding out whatever one wants to find out, is that it becomes rather easy to deal with potential enemies. Mobilising their vast cash and personnel resources and their network of powerful friends in the police and the higher reaches of politics, the executives at the News of the World and The Sun charged with protecting their way of carrying out their business found they had something on pretty much everyone. Many of those whom the Murdoch press saw as enemies were regularly intimidated, at the same time as News International mobilised its friends (senior figures in the Conservative Party, some of them even on the payroll as lavishly paid columnists) to talk down the scandal or defend the Murdoch model of “press freedom”. Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East and co-author of Dial M for Murdoch, who had made much of the running in assembling and advancing the case against the Murdoch press and had himself been subject to insult, insinuation, intimidation and surveillance as a result, described the situation as follows in a speech to the Commons in September 2010:

The truth is that, in this house we are all, in our own way, scared of the Rebekah Brookses of this world. It is almost laughable that we sit here in Parliament, the central institution of our sacred democracy – among us are some of the most powerful people in the land – yet we are scared of the power that Rebekah Brooks wields without a jot of responsibility or accountability. The barons of the media, with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle. They have no predators. They are untouchable. They laugh at the law; they sneer at Parliament. They have the power to hurt us, and they do, with gusto and precision, with joy and criminality. Prime ministers quail before them, and that is how they like it.
And yet, I sense that we are at the beginning of the endgame. Things will get better because, in many senses, they cannot get worse.

Perhaps Watson is right. Things may get better; they are certainly getting worse for Murdoch, which, even without the certainty of thorough and durable reform, is a comfort in itself. But the record is mixed and the game is not yet over. Goodman and Mulcaire both served short prison sentences, but they were financially compensated by News International (which may have been only fair if, as one suspects, they were “simply obeying orders”). The News of the World, in an extravagant Murdochian gesture, has been closed down; but The Sun on Sunday has been born. The number of arrests has multiplied, from the pathetic two in 2006 (Goodman and Mulcaire), to twenty-one in 2011 and twenty-three in 2012 up to this book’s publication date. But we are still awaiting the trials, and the sentences, which one hopes in some cases will be custodial. There are certainly bigger villains than Goodman and Mulcaire – but more powerful and better connected ones – still walking free. Most hopeful perhaps has been the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry, with a brief to inquire, not just into News International, but into the “culture, practice and ethics” of the British press as a whole.

What are the issues here? Are we dealing with one case, or a few cases, of a violation of established industry codes of practice? Of an unfortunate straying from legitimate methods of investigation into illegitimate ones, first thought to have been the work of one bad apple but later revealed to have been more widespread, yet still something in the nature of a localised episode of collective madness, a rush of hubris among the high-performing stars of the tabloid world, a breaking of boundaries which can now be dealt with by a few exemplary sentences and the firm restatement and tighter policing of those boundaries? Or is it something else?

Perhaps, if we want to try to answer those questions, we should start by asking some others: What exactly are the News of the World and The Sun? What do they represent and what values do they stand for? Most of us in fact instinctively know what they are and what they stand for but it is not often that it is spelled out by those who work there. One occasion when it was, however, was when the News of the World‘s executive director, Greg Miskiw, had to deal with a situation which arose after Rebekah Brooks instructed the reporter Charles Begley to change his name to Harry Potter and attend news conferences “in character”. Begley apparently began to find the pressure on him and the humour at his expense quite stressful and eventually he went on sick leave. It was Miskiw’s job to get him back. When Miskiw phoned him at home, Begley recorded the conversation. “Charles, Charles, Charles, let me tell you something. This is not a business for prima donnas. You know that and I know that.” Begley, who had been scolded for appearing in work without his robes (just a few hours after the World Trade Center bombing), told Miskiw that he no longer saw his career as consisting of prancing around in fancy dress for the editor’s amusement and indeed he wasn’t sure he wanted to come back to work. “Why not?” Miskiw asked. “Charles, this is what we do – we go out and destroy other people’s lives.”

Former tabloid reporter Sharon Marshall (1998-2002 at The People, 2002-2004 the News of the World) “told all” about how the high-flyer’s life was lived in a 2010 book called Tabloid Girl: A True Story. One cannot judge how complete was Ms Marshall’s conversion to truth after she left Murdoch Towers but one would certainly like to believe her account. Watson writes:

Discussing whether reporters made up stories, Marshall wrote “Yes. Sometimes the quotes were written before we ever left the office. Before we knew who we were interviewing.” Asked to write an article that “sounded” as if it had been written by the glamour model Jordan, she went home, drank two bottles of white wine and fabricated 1,000 words. The drinking was “harsh”; often a 9.a.m. whisky in the pub as executives departed for the morning news conference, followed by a bottle of wine at lunch, followed by more drinking with contacts in the afternoon, “slipping casually into an evening’s absolute bender”.

If someone got so drunk that they could not stay awake, or looked likely to scream at or punch a superior, or have an accident in their pants, colleagues would rally round and lock them in the soundproof glass box that contained the TV and DVD player so they could sleep it off. Wapping under Brooks and Coulson, it seems, was a little like Mad Men without the class.

There is certainly a view, and it is entertained as much in high as in low circles, that the News of the World and, more particularly, The Sun, are a bit of a laugh (and we all like a bit of a laugh, don’t we?) and that is somewhat priggish to complain about their vulgarity, viciousness, bullying and noxious politics. Certainly there have been times when The Sun has been funny; it would be very surprising if it was otherwise given its undoubted ability to pay huge money to smart people. (The conventional wisdom is that it is the production staff – the editors and sub-editors – rather than the reporters who matter in a tabloid and who deliver its success by cooking and recooking dubious “stories”, whose veracity is a quite secondary consideration, into tales that are entertaining, disreputable and high-spirited, which are then topped with a cracking headline; the opposite is the case in a respectable broadsheet: the reporters are the gods, while the sub-editors, whose duties are to design pages and write irreproachably dull headlines, are mere mouse monkeys.)

Not everyone, however, thinks The Sun is hilarious or that its humour is so innocent. Comedian Steve Coogan was the victim of a Sun sting operation in which one reporter warned him that he was being targeted by another in order to gain his confidence. In fact the two (or more) reporters were acting in concert, as Coogan was offered absolute assurances on confidentiality which were then cheerfully violated. The story that was published, which was intensely intrusive into his private life and relationships, caused him considerable distress, but Coogan remains sensible about what was going on:

Strangely, I don’t think it was a malicious personal vendetta against me. My feeling is that it was a sociopathic act by those who operate in an amoral universe where they are never accountable.

But should they be accountable? Should they be stopped? Or is it the case that press freedom is sacrosanct and the British public, eight hundred years after Magna Carta, quite simply has the right to know (if Chelsea’s central defender, say, is playing away from home)? Certainly there are those who think so. Tory education secretary (and former Times journalist) Michael Gove told a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference that he believed Rupert Murdoch to be “a great man”. The Leveson Inquiry, on the other hand, was having “a chilling effect” on free speech, he thought. But does the kind of free speech regime championed by Murdoch and the powerful position his newspapers enjoy have a chilling effect on democracy?

On May 28th this year former British prime minister Tony Blair said the relationship between politics and the media was one in which

… you feel this – this pretty intense power and the need to try and deal with that. And I’m just being open about that and open about the fact, frankly, that I decided, as a political leader – and this was a strategic decision – that I was going to manage that and not confront it.

Responding to a question about a written submission he had made which referred to a poisonous culture in the media, Blair continued:

Yeah, in this – as I say, what I would say is in certain parts of the media, where the line between news and commentary gets blurred – so those papers who take a particular view on a policy, a party or a person, then that is driven with an aggression – and, frankly, a prejudice – that means you cross the line, I think. Now, that’s what I think is the problem, and that’s why, if you like, political leaders like myself have to be in a position where you’re managing these major forces within the media because if you fail to manage it and you fall out with them, the consequences, you know, as I will say a bit later, are harsh, let us say.

The major forces Tony Blair is talking about are principally the newspapers of the Murdoch group. The Sun, for example, had originally been a Labour paper, then Murdoch, a great admirer of Thatcher of course, moved it into the Tory column. But he was not much enamoured of her successor, John Major, and liked what he saw of Blair and his project to bring his party back to the political centre (or a little further). The Sun switched to Labour again and was to stick with it as long as Blair remained prime minister. But after Blair left David Cameron’s Tories were now again looking very attractive to Murdoch (and they were certainly more friendly to his business interests). The ditching of Labour as Gordon Brown faced into his first general election test as leader was typically brisk and brutal (” … Brown’s a clown”).

Tony Blair was acutely aware of previous attacks by The Sun on his party and its leaders: (“Do You Really Want This Old Fool To Run Britain?” [Michael Foot] and “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”). Given the unchanging political attachments of much of the British press (the Mirror and the Guardian will always lean towards the left, while the Independent occupies the centre and the Mail, Express and Telegraph stand on the right), the Murdoch papers occupy a crucial position: they have shifted before and can shift again. They can be canvassed and courted: Rupert Murdoch has been described as the ultimate floating voter, and as is usual with floating voters he is inclined to ask: what are you going to do for me then? What Tony Blair was telling the Leveson Inquiry (“quite frankly”, as usual) was that he felt that Labour could not beat a mainly hostile press (or prevail with the support of just the Mirror and the Guardian). And as he wished to bring his party out of the wilderness after three successive defeats, he would do whatever that required. Murdoch’s papers would throw their weight behind Labour and Labour would… well we don’t know what Labour said it would do, but at the very least we can be sure that it promised to adopt a “sensible” approach to enterprise, big business and finance capitalism, which it certainly did, and none more enthusiastically than chancellor Gordon Brown.

Rupert Murdoch claims that critics of his newspapers are snobs who want to impose their views and tastes on everyone else. Both he and former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie would claim that they are “only” giving the public what they want, though MacKenzie has a view of that public that one would be a little surprised to hear Murdoch publicly air. As he told one author of a study of the Sun:

You just don’t understand the readers, do you, eh? He’s the bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers. He doesn’t want to hear about that stuff (serious news).

Curiously, it is rare to find a broadsheet journalist who doesn’t have a sneaking regard for the practices of tabloid journalism, or at any rate does not regard them with a certain amused tolerance (the class swot, it seems, has a secret crush on Basher Briggs). For who could be such a prig as to deny the people (not “people like us” of course but the common people) what they want?

Albert Camus, who made a distinguished contribution to French newspaper culture in three separate phases of his career: as a crusading investigative reporter for Alger Républicain and Soir Républicain, as an editorialist and leader of public opinion for Combat and as a polemical columnist for L’Express, wrote pungently on this notion of giving the public what it wants. Believing that journalists were, above all, people who were “supposed to have ideas” and that their job was to inform rather than patronise their readers, he wrote:

They tell us: “That’s what the public wants.” No, the public does not want it. It has been taught to want it for twenty years, which is not the same thing.

The reader, he felt, was ready to accept a new tone from the press (particularly after the devastating wartime experience of defeat and occupation by the Germans).

But if twenty papers, every day of the year, puff out around him the air of mediocrity and artifice, he will breathe that air, and he will not be able to do without it.

There are two directly conflicting views at work here about the relationship between a newspaper (or broadcaster) and its public. On the one hand there are those who believe that the newspaper can have an educative influence, that it can intellectually or even morally “improve” its readers or broaden their intellectual horizons, or, if that is too ambitious, at least supply them with the information they need to make considered choices as citizens. That is “teach the public”. It is very much what Camus believed in the 1940s, and perhaps WT Stead in the 1880s, but it is a view that is now very seldom expressed. If anyone in the business today adheres to a version of the “improving” doctrine they tend to keep pretty quiet about it one would assume for fear of scorn.

Then there is “tickle the public”. Pierre Lazareff, an older contemporary of Camus’s and the editorial director of France-Soir, was credited by many colleagues with creating singlehandedly a new and very successful form of popular journalism. “A journalist’s first duty,” he stated, “is to be read.” Invited to admire Lazareff (a former boss), Camus declined. How, he asked could one admire someone who marshalled all his intelligence and skill to produce what was simply well-turned rubbish? Pierre Lazareff, he told his colleagues, was “the Napoleon of Shit”.

Camus’s doctrine was a severe one no doubt, and in the current financial circumstances of the press probably an untenable one (it was actually pretty untenable, in its purest form, in Camus’s time too). Newspapers require advertisers, advertisers require markets and markets, it seems, require a range of content, not just news of public and political events but sport, features, “human interest” and stories that are built around, and will attract, reader participation. The medicine, or at least some of the medicine, of serious news may indeed be swallowed, but only with a considerable number of spoonfuls of sugar – perhaps more indeed than is really good for us. To be allowed to teach just a little, it seems, we must tickle a lot.

In 2000 I had the chance to visit the offices of the prestigious German quality newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and to participate, with journalists from at least a dozen European countries, in a discussion with one of the panel of five publishers (Herausgeber) whose names sit in the paper’s masthead just under the title. Much of the discussion was about what future there might be for serious journalism (that future seemed threatened even then). At one point I asked the FAZ man if his newspaper would eventually feel that in order to keep its readers it would have to lighten and brighten (favourite words of newspaper executives) its presentation, in short become something like a broadloid (broadsheet + tabloid, serious + fun, teach + tickle) as so many of the big beasts of the British press (the Telegraph, the Guardian) had done. There was no hesitation whatsoever in his answer: the Frankfurter Allgemeine would not be changing anything. Its readers were people who simply must know (because their income depended on it) what was happening in the world. They expected the FAZ to tell them; and it did. And in 2012 it still does.

That is a good place for a newspaper to be – and no doubt also an immensely satisfying place for a journalist to work. The FAZ sells an average of 355,260 copies a day (first quarter 2012) and one must assume, since many of its readers are prosperous, that advertising revenue is also healthy. But where the FAZ is, is not where everyone else is.

The newspaper press system – in Britain, let us say – is something of an ecology; changes in just one part of it can have effects on the whole. At what we normally refer to as the bottom, though it is not bottom in terms of sales, you have the tabloids or “redtops”, The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star. These titles compete fiercely with each other for readers, but not hugely with those “above” them. In the middle there is the Daily Express and, pre-eminently the Daily Mail, with 1.9 million in sales perhaps the most successful of British newspapers (though not the biggest selling). The Mail knows its formula very well: its readers are white, no longer quite so young, no longer perhaps very well, more or less middle class (at a stretch), and prone to anxiety about status and health; the newspaper pitches its content to this readership in a way that might be considered dangerously pro-cyclical. “Black kids on the dole doing it all day long while pensioners wait for hip replacements” would probably pass muster as an effective Mail headline. The Mail faces some competition, within its “group”, from the Express, but it is also to a small degree playing in, or affecting, the group above, where the Telegraph and the Times may be interested in poaching some of its readers. And these two titles are also competing with each other, though probably not so much with the Guardian, and to a degree with the Financial Times.

The interesting point about this press ecology is that the categories of downmarket, mid-market and upmarket are much more porous than they used to be. If the Mail decided to become more serious, that might worry the Telegraph and it could be expected to respond. And the Telegraph will try to grab as many readers as possible at the bottom of its range without losing those at the top. Meanwhile, everyone has become more “tabloid”, more interested in celebrities, more ready to tug the heartstrings, more keen to snuffle out “the real story”. The leftwing Guardian may cover the yarn about the priest, the prowler and the pop princess in what it likes to think is an ironic way, but it’ll give you the gen just the same.

The point that the quality and the tabloid press are not as different from each other as some practitioners (and readers?) of the former might like to think is made forcefully – and perhaps somewhat more confidently stated than the evidence justifies – by Daniel Soar in a recent issue of the London Review of Books:

The non-tabloid and tabloid press distinguish themselves from each other by pointing out the predictability of their rivals’ obsessions. The Guardian and the Daily Mail need each other in order to define what it is they emphatically are not. But like the tabloids, the broadsheets’ most effective tactic is shock. They’re in the same business – the revealing of secrets – and they have no choice but to go about it the same way.

This is intellectually elegant, and no doubt fascinating in theory. But the fact is that in the Murdoch/hacking affair, it was to a large degree the persistent digging of journalists like the Guardian‘s Nick Davies which revealed the true extent of the abuses and ensured that the story did not go away, as so many powerful people wished it to. Both the News of the World and the Guardian may be in the business of revealing, of telling people something they do not know and which some would prefer if they never knew, but their activities, certainly in this case if not in every one, cannot be viewed in the same moral light. Revealing is not always morally an identical act: it depends on what is being revealed and what purpose and what benefit to society the revelation has.

Which brings us back to the methods of newsgathering. It is a good thing that Lord Justice Leveson is looking at the British press as a whole rather than just that section of it which is considered “downmarket”. He is charged with examining “culture, practice and ethics” – but not, it seems, philosophy. Tory definitions of press freedom don’t seem to go very much deeper than “the public has a right to know”. But the public has a right to know what exactly? My sexual preferences, your delinquent family shame, her lifetime regret for a child given up for adoption? And does the press have any duties, any functions (WT Stead’s agora?) which may be necessary to society and democracy? And under what conditions can those functions best be carried out and under what circumstances is the ability to carry them out severely compromised?

These are all big questions and perhaps beyond the scope of the Leveson Inquiry. In the meantime, Murdoch’s lieutenants have to be dealt with through the law. The man himself is of course beyond the law. Arguably, Britain has long been too indulgent towards its tabloids, with those who should have known better giggling when they should have been worrying. The diet the redtops purvey, after all, is not so much an innocent one of fun and frolics as a nasty and damaging one of drivel and spite. It is difficult to believe that this does not have a general effect on British culture.

Tom Watson, who has shown great courage and persistence in following the News International story and who deserves our thanks for co-writing this compelling and thoroughly researched book, is surely right. When a British prime minister who has won the electoral endorsement of thirteen and a half million voters believes that he really cannot afford to risk displeasing a foreign billionaire, it is high time to start making things better, for they surely cannot be allowed to get any worse.

Tom Watson and Martin Hickman, Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, London: Allen Lane 2012.

Published 10 July 2012
Original in English
First published by Dublin Review of Books 22 (2012)

Contributed by Dublin Review of Books © Enda O'Doherty / Dublin Review of Books / Eurozine



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