Sorry for the hiatus in blogging – work got in the way again. 😦
I was planning to follow up the last article on abortion with one on assisted dying, but I can’t really act as though the whole News of the World phone-hacking / Murdoch empire debacle hasn’t been happening. Come to think of it, maybe the two topics aren’t so unrelated, though the demise of the tabloid was more a ritual sacrifice of appeasement than an assisted death.
Of course, whether we’re rejoicing or weeping over its downfall, the loss of the News of the World will make no real difference to anyone except to its former employees. Another rag will rise from the primordial swamp of tabloid journalism to take its place; probably a Sunday Sun. The people and families affected by phone-hacking and other intrusive and unscrupulous journalistic methods will not be served. It’s a grand theatrical gesture, but ultimately an empty one.
Now I really, badly want at this point to be self-righteously smug and point out that I never buy and rarely read newspapers, so the whole sorry business has been of little interest or relevance to me. And it would be true to an extent – my family didn’t do newspapers, and so I didn’t catch the habit or grow up with a particular allegiance. Instead I follow the family tradition of getting my news from BBC Radio 4, the BBC news website, and satirical news shows on the BBC like Mock the Week, The News Quiz and The Now Show. The more perceptive among you may possibly be able to spot a connection between those sources. Of course, I would argue that the BBC is unbiased and above reproach… but that’s probably because the BBC’s slightly left-leaning, middle-class, mildly establishment-mocking stance is one that happens to chime with my own views, and therefore I don’t notice it as bias.
The reality is of course that all news reporting is skewed to a degree – if not in the actual presentation of the facts, then at least in the editorial choice as to which stories are given prominence and which are sidelined or suppressed. Whatever paper, website or radio station you choose for your news, you’re getting someone’s edited version, which may or may not come with an underlying socio-political agenda. Regular readers of even the most obviously biased papers (I didn’t say the Daily Mail. No-one heard me say the Daily Mail) probably also feel that their paper represents the truth – because it so closely mirrors their own view.
A second fairly obvious but often overlooked reality is that newspapers exist primarily to sell themselves, to make money – not primarily to tell the truth. They are not philanthropic or philosophical enterprises dedicated to the noble ideal of pure fact and reason; they are aimed at a particular market, and they will do all they can to please that market and so sell more copies. If the paper’s demographic wants celeb sleaze or government exposés or topless photos or rants about immigrants or whatever other mindless prejudice-feeding crap, that’s what they’ll get.
Anyone who’s had any dealings with journalism knows how inaccurate and unreliable newspaper reporting can be – indeed, I would say usually is. The inaccuracy of science reporting is particularly fabled – if you haven’t read it, get hold of a copy of Ben Goldacre’s fascinating book Bad Science, which might just as well have been be titled ‘Bad science reporting’. The pressure of deadlines often forces journalists to go to print without checking their facts; and the pressure to be entertaining and interesting often encourages them to go to press with deliberate falsehoods (it’s generally more profitable to sell the extra papers and be libelled than to keep clean and sell less).
Of course, as well as reflecting what we already think and believe (the Mirror is aptly named), papers also try to influence and shape our views, and they often succeed – they are moulders as well as mirrors. Hence politicians courting the media, because the support (or the enmity) of the Sun makes a real difference to how the electorate view a particular party, and so a real difference to popularity ratings and ultimately election results.
Now I may just be getting cynical in my old age, but bearing all the above in mind it’s not a big surprise to me to learn that (some) journalists are unscrupulous carrion-feeders who would sell their grannies to terrorists for a headline-grabbing story, and who think nothing of making money out of others’ misery – much of which they have often helped to inflict in the first place. I’m afraid the News of the Screws phone-hacking scandal has only confirmed the view I already had of most tabloid journalists.
The right to know?
Of course, despite all of this, it’s still better to have a free press than not to have one. I don’t think many of us really want media that’s merely a lapdog of the state like in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Gaddafi’s Libya. But it seems to me that what we have in the UK now is the opposite extreme, more like a baying and barely-restrained monster, a giant blood-sucking parasite of a press which no-one had dared challenge for fear of the muck it would rake up against them by fair means or (more likely) foul, to be eagerly devoured by a scandal-hungry public.
For it’s we who make the papers – they only sell to us the rubbish that we want, and for which we seem to have developed an insane and insatiable appetite. Drugs and porn wouldn’t exist if people didn’t want to buy them; similarly, papers wouldn’t peddle salacious gossip, soft porn and self-righteous celeb scandal-mongering if that wasn’t what most of us lapped up. In large part then I believe it’s we who have created the monster, and maybe it’s up to us to change rather than just pointing the finger at particular papers and their editors.
Of course we believe that we have a ‘right to know’. But everyone, politicians and private persons alike, has some kind of muck to be raked if you look for it hard enough; things we wouldn’t want spread across the front pages for the whole world to see. Maybe, just maybe, we should stop trying to self-righteously expose others’ muck and instead concentrate on our own – I seem to remember somebody or other talking about the planks in our own eyes, and something about those without sin casting the first stone?
Some words of the good old apostle Paul also seem appropriate: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal 5:15).
Of course, if you break the law, you can expect to face the legal consequences, and you can’t really expect to be sheltered from public knowledge and censure. However, if you make a personal or moral lapse but not a criminal one – as we have surely all done to greater or lesser degrees – does everyone else really have the right to know about it? Isn’t it reasonable to expect a degree of privacy in cases of private and personal immorality or other mess-ups which have no impact on anyone outside our own families and close associates? The primary judgement we need to face in such cases, and the forgiveness we need to seek, is from the ones we have hurt. I’d argue that the same applies to celebrities and politicians. Only if the moral lapse was also an actual crime, or something that genuinely impairs their ability to hold their position with any integrity, is there any wider ‘need to know’. Frankly, and pardon my French, I don’t give a **** who is ****ing who so long as they aren’t ****ing up the country, the economy, education, jobs, the health service etc.
(I also don’t much care if someone in public office makes an unguarded remark, like the poor vicar who committed the solecism of expressing on Facebook some cynical remarks about the Royal Wedding and as a result was suspended from public duty. So much for freedom of speech…)
George Orwell predicted in 1984 that the things we fear would be our destruction; Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, that it would rather be the things we desire that would destroy us. I think Huxley was closer to the truth. As Dumbledore wisely says to Harry Potter in The Philosopher’s Stone, ‘humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.’ To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we generally get what we want in the end; but we don’t always like the consequences. It seems to me that all of this applies to the current situation with the papers. We wanted – or enough of us wanted – the kind of ‘news’ that The News of the World peddled, the right to know everything about everybody however unnecessarily intrusive and unpleasant. So we got it, and we’ve ended up not liking the consequences; the things we desired turned out to be our destruction. They were certainly the NOTW’s destruction.