How long has the News of the World hacking scandal been unfolding? Two weeks now? Three? I can’t remember. There seem to be almost daily revelations, new and ever more convoluted twists to the tale. While these new and ever-escalating reports are indeed all relevant, I’m not entirely sure that they are surprising. The only thing that has surprised me so far has been a fake pie to the face, but otherwise? No, nothing else. And I wonder how many others are truly surprised by what has been revealed. Appalled? Sure, but surprised?
I didn’t need anyone to tell me that The News of the World was a terrible newspaper, or that its employees engaged in dubious practice. This much has long been obvious from its tone, from the type of stories it has run and from the fact that a considerable amount of its content was nothing more than large headlines and big pictures. A reliance upon paparazzi and the inclusion of oh so many grainy, spy-style photographs and a wealth of “revelations” about the private lives of famous people took precedence over international affairs, economics, politics and big business, mostly because it was easier and simpler to cover. It didn’t matter to those writing these stories if they were sometimes partly or even wholly invented, or it and other tabloids had been caught faking photographs. That wasn’t the point.
I also didn’t need anyone to tell me that what the newspaper did must have been sanctioned by its editors and must also have been known to those further up the News International hierarchy. Only the most confused of editors are unaware of what their staff are up to, and those kinds of editors do not work for a publication as busy as this. The same would also be true for publishers and executives, particularly anyone with a reputation for being as hands-on as Rupert Murdoch, someone whose recent testimony that he was in the dark about what was going on at one of his most successful newspapers is surprising, to say the least.
Perhaps most importantly, I also didn’t need anyone to tell me that journalists at a newspaper like The News of the World both enjoyed what they were doing and also felt justified doing so. The “Pottergate” sidestory covered in the Telegraph last week (which would be amusing if it wasn’t a genuinely true story of a man asked to dress as Harry Potter right after the World Trade Center attacks, and which features the astonishing line “Andy told me I should always have my Harry Potter gear around, in case of a Harry Potter emergency”) simply concludes with the dialogue “That is what we do - we go out and destroy other people’s lives.”
In my time I’ve known a couple of people who have worked for redtop/tabloid papers, though I don’t know them any more, and I’m hesitant to call them journalists. They would quote all the classic lines, saying that the public had a right to know the sort of things they were writing about, that this justified what they did and how they did it, and they would also say that they were out to excite and entertain, not to educate or inform. They did not want to cover complex stories or consider a variety of opinions. They never seemed to mind if they contradicted themselves in what they said or did and they would not and often could not follow a line of reasoning to its conclusion. That’s not what they were paid to do or wanted to do. Most of all, they didn’t research very much. That’s a funny little concept to me, a journalist who doesn’t research much.
I found their two-dimensional reasoning was appropriate to the cartoonish nature of their newspapers. Look at the front page of any British tabloid. Read the language. Look at the depth of the stories. The coverage is often childish, but then I suppose this the general theme of a great deal of News International’s flaccid reporting, which seems to be more about a particular attack agenda and less about investigation. Some have suggested that News International’s lack of investigative interest is actually profitable to the organisation sometimes, that promoting wars or conflicts rather than investigating them makes for more profitable news.
It makes perfect sense to me that journalists who were not good at sourcing or researching stories would instead have to employ and support private investigators in doing their work for them. It also makes perfect sense to me that if they felt what they were doing was both justified and profitable (regardless of whether they could actually justify it via reasoned debate) then there would be nothing to stop them crowbaring their way into the telephone communications of a celebrity, of a member of the royal family, of a government minister, of a terrorist bombing survivor, of a missing schoolgirl. It makes perfect sense to me that they would again justify themselves using arguments relating to freedom of information or public right, while either blissfully unaware of privacy laws and the concept of common decency, or simply choosing to ignore these, feeling that their own needs overrule them. Despite how populist tabloids claim to be, there’s a distinct whiff of “We are better” to them. “We are better than them, than this, than you.”
I never understood what it was about a person being famous or successful that has lead these newspapers to feel that this person should become a legitimate target for an invasion of privacy or for public attacks. The majority of people who have achieved a measure of success and fame have had to work hard to do so and I can only imagine that such newspapers feature them in an attempt to profit from this success, knowing that their name and their picture, particularly if they are linked to shock or scandal, will generate revenue.
This leads me to wonder where the line is drawn, just how famous or successful someone has to be before they become a legitimate target, before the public has the right to know everything about them. How big does The News of the World, or any other paper, feel you should be before they believe you have given up the right to privacy, the right to respect as a human being? Of course, they don’t know and they can’t justify where or why such a line would exist, much as they also cannot justify the dehumanisation of a person or their family that their coverage and their mentality causes. Let’s not forget that, whether we like them or not, David Beckham’s family are still human beings and his children are still children. Freddie Mercury, while photographers were crowded outside his house and trying to take pictures through every window of his property, was still a terminally ill man. One wonders if, had he not announced his illness publicly, tabloid reporters would now be chasing Terry Pratchett around and asking him why he finds it difficult to sign dedications.
This is how these people have been behaving for years, so I’m also not surprised to hear an MP in Parliament say that a reporter for the Daily Mail entered his home without permission, inquiring about his sick wife, nor that a newspaper may even go so far as to begin hacking phones belonging to the police when the police began to investigate what was going on. None of this is a revelation to me. I’m not sure what you could tell me a British tabloid did that would cause me surprise or alarm.
There’s one other element to this unfolding drama that I haven’t yet mentioned and one that hasn’t yet been addressed in very much detail, and that is the audience for The News of the World and for other tabloids. The News of the World would sell over 2.5 million copies a week, a little less than the Sun manages every day. The Daily Mail scores around 2.1 million. The Daily Star makes maybe three quarters of a million and, like all these tabloids, will have an actual readership greater than its sales figures.
The audience of these newspapers is enormous. For a long time now, there has been a massive demand for the stories that they print and for the kind of coverage they promote. People buy these newspapers and people endorse them. They are very much a fact of life in this country, so much so that I was surprised to travel abroad and find that in many other countries there is very little or even no market for tabloid news reporting, something that has since led me to believe these tabloids are a source of national shame.
If this sort of reporting was not endorsed by a public whose money has gone from their wallets to The News of the World and then into the pockets of phone hackers, then perhaps much of this would not have happened. And yet it did, because the appetite for this sort of thing exists. The appetite for lurid shock and scandal fuels the aforementioned justifications and excuses, the belief that this is the right thing to do, and the subsequent hacking first of celebrities, then of public figures, then of bereaved families, then of police officers.
The News of the World has been financially goaded by a British public who have encouraged it to go as far as possible, to reach for whatever it could. Perhaps they haven’t liked where it has gone, but they helped it to get there.
My money hasn’t supported any of this. I have never paid for any tabloid like The News of the World, or its cousins or colleagues. Have you?
Where is your money now? What do you think it’s doing?