A boatload of pious claptrap has been written and broadcast over the last few weeks as the rest of the media has been circling the wounded News Corp like sharks homing in on an enfeebled killer whale. I am no fan of Murdoch, his protegée, or any of their collective works but the number of people now clambered aboard this particular bandwagon makes me wonder how it can roll along so happily. It reminds me of playground games among seven-year-olds where everyone’s a cowboy and nobody wants to be the hapless indians.
Elbowing even the rest of the media aside is the UK Parliament where Miliband has finally found a statesman voice to outmaneuver Cameron. All parties are falling over one another to agree on something for the first time in living memory. Everyone knows phone hacking is wrong—whether illegal or not—and especially distasteful when it comes to people who, courtesy of the fickle finger of fate, are in the public eye and therefore of media interest.
But why were we so quick to condemn the News of the World when, by pushing investigative journalism into realms where others feared to tread, they had built a publication bought by millions. Despicable as their tactics might have become, was all they did so different from the paparazzi who intrude on ‘celebrities’ lives, or a flock of hacks flashing cameras into prison van windows as they arrive at court? Pick the average magazine out of the cacophony of colours on any news stand and it doesn’t have to be Hello or OK to boast of exclusives or secrets or intrusions into somebody’s life. Vile though it may have been, by the sleazy standards that we lay down our money for, NoW was the trendsetter, the top of the heap, even secretly admired.
Fifty years ago, in the button-down fifties, sex didn’t exist. At least, as far as the media was concerned, it deserved no mention and the trial over Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the scandal of the age. A dozen years before that, the heavily censored press printed just about whatever patriotic guff the government wanted (“carrots are good for eyesight” or “snoek and whalemeat are nutritious”) and yet we trusted the press then. Now, in an age where information is at overload, we have developed cynicism to a refined level. We are not alone with our red-tops: Bild Zeitung provides a very similar service in Germany. But our prurient, selective amnesia between morals and a good scandal make us stand out in our lack of trust in the very media we rely on for unbiased commentary.
This is not an exclusively European phenomenon: 60% of Americans do not trust their press but, because they have such a fragmented, provincial set of titles, that varies greatly around the country. Indians display a similar skepticism, although that may be hangover from the days when the British Raj ran the show. But the British still top the charts.
So are our press subcreatures of the moral universe and the NoW et al hacking scandal indicative of their morals? No. There are principled journalists out there who will get the story the old-fashioned way: through persistence, research, shoe leather and a little luck. But every editor from tin-pot county press to the Grauniad pushes them to look for the ‘angle’. Long gone are the deferential pieces from Victorian times when the press was both trusted and profitable. Setting speculative hares running is no longer frowned on. “Getting the dirt” is what it’s all about. “It is easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission” has become our press watchword.
And, since we buy the results by the bushel, who can we blame but ourselves?