Saturday, 9 July 2011

Phone-Hacking, the Screws and Cigarette Counter Honesty

Everyone appears to be having their take on the phone-hacking saga, and with the last edition of the News of the World out on Sunday, it is a rare opportunity for all those who despise the Murdoch press (myself included) to partake in a spot of schadenfreude and maybe even a small slice of self-indulgence. Whether News International launch a shiny, scandal-free new Sunday rag or not in the coming weeks, a great many people have endeavoured to bring down what was the most rotten of edifices. Massive kudos goes to all those advertisers who had the balls to let their money talk, along with the individuals and groups who campaigned to put pressure on them in the first instance. The impending decision on the BSkyB takeover may have had something to do with the closure of NOTW, but the role of ordinary citizens in this victory for decency and people power should not be underestimated.

What disappoints me in this sense is the popular and populist call for tighter regulation of the tabloid press in particular. Firstly, this is not a regulation issue - the News of the World, and it must be said, other newspapers, would appear to have been involved in outright criminality for the best part of a decade, and this is a question not of 'beefing up' one of the media's many paper tigers passing as watchdogs, but involves finding those who hacked the phones of Milly Dowler and others, establishing who gave the order to do so, and sending all involved to chokey for a few years. Please, no open nicks, no ex-editors or reporters seen weaving baskets in a Butlin's camp - if Rebekah Brooks was in on it, then she deserves the full 'Bad Girls' treatment in Holloway, while Andy Coulson, if guilty, should be anticipating an awkward encounter or two with Bubba in the shower. I've already come to terms with the fact that the beautiful mental image of Rupert himself being led away from the court for a spot of porridge is not going to happen, but hey it was a nice thought while it lasted...

The most depressing element of this, however, is that the calls for the state to step in and shackle the press through the statute book displays a complete lack of understanding of exactly what public outrage and subsequent action really achieved. Yes, the death of the News of the World may be a tactical move by News International to keep the Sky deal alive, but this manoeuvre was only made a necessity by the sincere angst felt by the population as a whole, and understood by the advertisers who walked away from a toxic brand in droves. The very simple response for the rest of us, had the NOTW stayed open, would have been to stage a mass boycott of the paper, thereby driving the rag out of business in a matter of weeks. We don't need the government to hold our hand, it is perfectly possible to implement change ourselves by taking our money elsewhere.

On Friday morning I dipped into a newsagents for my daily deck of John Player, and noticed a newspaper on the counter with Brooks splashed across the front page. "God, she's a difficult woman to stick up for eh?", I suggested while waiting for my card to scan. "I'm saying nothing - we all bought those papers" was the unexpected but welcome reply from the woman behind the counter. This stopped me in my tracks before I smiled and answered, "hand on heart - I haven't bought the Sun or the News of the World for more than ten years". This is absolutely true - I was raised in a Sun-reading household and grew to detest its cheap populism, casual xenophobia and simpleton analysis of complicated issues long before I left home. I should state in the interests of honesty that I may have bought the Times once or twice in the last few years while I had time to kill, for shame...

Staying on the topic of straight-talk, my friend has clearly been a News of the World reader for several years, and has no intentions of changing the typical habits of her Sabbath, "Oh I love reading all the gossip and stories" she said, and with that, I left her to serve the rest of the shop's customers and admired the fact that she saw it was not her place to be sanctimonious about the question of phone-hacking. Any successor to the Screws has at least one reader and it's no business of mine what she spends her money on. However, those who have read such stories in the past and now feel a sense of disgust upon hearing how they were obtained should not be asking the state to step in and allow them to indulge in gossip, scandal and tittle-tattle with a clear conscience. Either state openly that you like this stuff more than you'll ever be upset about phone-hacking, or stop buying these rags completely, and then express your outrage from a genuine and sincere position.

While Britain may have undergone something of a sexual liberation in the last 40 years ago, a trace of our previously prudish attitude towards the subject appears to have remained, and manifested itself in an obsession with "who's fucking who". Without it, there would be no market for the Screws and other newspapers to invest time and money in the 'scoops' that scandal stories represent, and it would also remove the commercial pressure on them to up the stakes and move from trawling through people's rubbish or asking their neighbours for gossip, and into somewhat darker territory. This culture creeps into our everyday lives, with workplace rumour mills mutating every conversation between members of the opposite sex into a steamy and passionate romp. Office parties become excuses for the opening of industrial-sized gossip factories in the days and weeks beforehand, churning out innuendo and poison on an epic and immensely sad scale.

I've got better things to do with my time, and so don't bother with the rumour plant or corporate functions anymore (see this blog - if you're interested in that subject). Nor could I really care less about the sex lives of public figures unless they have made a point of lecturing the rest of us on the theme of 'good old fashioned, wholesome family values'. As a country, we just appear to have a highly immature approach to the subject, and when one fuses this with the way in which so many people see 'the collective' (usually enforced by the state) as everything, it is little wonder that the personal privacy of individuals is given so little regard.

So random footballer, actor or musician fucked random bimbo in random hotel while doing half a gram of coke - good for him. I don't know about you, but I'd be more worried if they were doing nothing more exciting than a mug of ovaltine, two slices of toast and an early night. If one of our young and famous hasn't been involved in a drink and/or drug fuelled act of debauchery in the last year or so, then I might want to read about that, mark their efforts 'must try harder' and advise them to re-read the manual that explains the rules of being a somebody. Other than that, no I don't wish to know every lurid detail, and fail to square how someone could do so and then preach about the intrusive and illegal activities of the rag that brought them the exclusive in the first place.

Yes I want closure to this as much as anyone, and understand that a full enquiry is bound to drag other national newspapers into mud on a comparable scale to that in which the 'the News of the World' has justifiably sunk. Only seeing executives, editors and bent coppers in the dock will truly bring this sense of finality, and it will be interesting to put it mildly to see how the case pans out. However, before you nod your head in agreement with that sentiment, ask yourself if you intend to buy the Screws or its successor - if you don't, or just want to create a Murdoch bonfire in your garden, then many thanks for reading and take care. However, there will almost certainly be numbers running into millions who will express supposed upset about phone-hacking and then spend their own money on the publication that carried it out on an industrial scale.

They should either be honest enough to admit they don't care, like my friend in the newsagent did, or save their phoney angst for someone else.


  1. I LIKE to read about 'who's fucking who' and 'who's blowing £1000 per week up their nostrils' and all other manner of lurid sleaze that seems to emanate from the world of 'Celebrity'. For the most part I don't even believe the things that I read and I only read these articles as a sort of soap opera when I'm plain bored. I do however think that there are several ways for journalists to acquire these sorts of stories without resorting to the measures that they did. Regardless of this - had the phone hacking scandal stayed within this parallel celbrity universe then I don't believe people would have expressed the shock that they did. It was when it came over to our 'real universe' of real people (Dowler family, bereaved families of fallen soldiers etc.) that the people really got pissed off and rightly so - now it was an invasion of privacy that we could all relate to against people we all genuinely cared for. Phone hacking on any scale is despicable and I believe that NOTW's downfall is completely justified and am glad it will not be around anymore (although I am not naive enough to think that the ghost will not live in some form or another) However I still want my fix of Celebrity tittle tattle and sex scandals - I just don't wish it to have been sourced in such a manner and there are plenty of feasible ways that this can happen!

  2. Anon - thanks for commenting. It will be interesting to see how a new-look mainsteam media free of hacking and general criminality will look and whether there will be the same scale of this kind of story.

    If there is significantly less then that will reveal a lot and I struggle to see how the gutter press will survive in those circumstances. Yeah, there are other ways, such as harrassing their neighbours and going through people's rubbish, but they're just not as likely to be successful as listening to someone's voicemail or reading their texts.

    You're absolutely right that celebs were considered 'fair game' - wrongly in my view. Justifying criminality on the grounds that 'they deserved it' is the thin end of a very toxic wedge...