(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 20.)
I know it’s not right to gloat, but I couldn’t help feeling a frisson of pleasure at the discomfort experienced in high places as a result of the News of the World cellphone hacking scandal.
I detest the British tabloids. They are an abomination.
They have the ethics of sewer rats, using sleazy, underhand and even illegal means to get stories. This is not a recent phenomenon and neither is it confined to the News of the World. It has been going on for years, and no London tabloid can claim its nose is clean.
Indeed, as the Guardian journalist Nick Davies revealed in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, even some supposedly reputable British broadsheet papers have broken ethical boundaries in pursuit of exclusive stories. (Davies, incidentally, was one of the reporters who broke the story that the News of the World had hacked into people’s phone messages.)
I believe the well-documented misbehaviour of the British tabloids is one reason why journalists throughout the English-speaking world are regarded as sleazeballs, bereft of ethics and prepared to do anything for a scoop. We are all smeared by association.
The “redtops”, as the Fleet Street tabloids are called (because of the bright red ink used in their mastheads), have their defenders. It’s often pointed out, for example, that it was their relentless scrutiny that exposed the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana as a sham.
In the light of what we now know about that marital train wreck, the tabloids can claim to be vindicated. They can justify their hounding of the royal couple by arguing that the British public was entitled to know what was really going on behind the public relations smokescreen.
It’s hard to disagree. Yet I would find the argument a lot more convincing if I believed the tabloid press was driven by a high moral calling to search out and report the truth, rather than by an insatiable appetite for scandal and sensation (which the disintegrating royal marriage provided by the truckload).
And while it’s easy to cite the Charles and Diana story as an example of the press performing its noblest function – namely, exposing something that those in power would have preferred to hush up – it’s rather harder to justify everyday sleaze like trawling through the cellphone messages of private citizens in the hope of finding something juicy to splash on page one.
As long as you can produce a legitimate outcome, such as uncovering corruption – or even, at a stretch, a two-timing football star – it may be possible to construct a retrospective justification for unethical behaviour such as phone hacking. But where the victims are blameless people such as the families of slain soldiers and a murder victim, the News of the World doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
But it’s not just unethical journalists who have been rattled by the events of the past fortnight. What’s equally satisfying is that the nature of the relationship between British politicians and the media has come into sharp focus.
I take the purist view that politicians and journalists should keep each other at arm’s length, but in Britain the two groups have a long history of cosying up to each other.
Generations of wealthy newspaper proprietors from Lord Northcliffe to Rupert Murdoch have taken the view that ownership of a paper brings with it the right to exercise political power and patronage. Murdoch has done this more blatantly than most, switching the support of papers like The Sun (daily readership: 7 million-plus) between the two main parties as it suited him.
Politicians respond by ingratiating themselves with proprietors and editors to win their favour. It’s a political phenomenon that’s mercifully alien to New Zealand, where the British-style media tycoon is unheard of and the press has generally shunned political alignment.
In the past 20 years the relationship between British politicians and the media has entered very murky ethical territory as party leaders sought either to recruit the support of newspaper barons or to manipulate the press for their own ends – none more so than Tony Blair, under whose prime ministership media strategy seemed to command as much attention as economic or foreign policy. Now we learn that current British prime minister David Cameron, as well as employing former News of the World editor Andy Coulson (now in disgrace) as his communications supremo, was in the habit of hobnobbing socially with the Murdoch family.
Both Cameron and Blair went out of their way to court Murdoch. To me this degree of closeness has always seemed deeply unhealthy and ripe with the potential to compromise either side. And so it has turned out, with Cameron suddenly finding it expedient to distance himself from the powerful media friends that he was only too eager to cultivate until the News of the World scandal erupted. If it weren’t so hypocritical, there would be something almost comical about the speed with which he has abandoned the people he so recently wooed.
As the saying goes, those who sup with the devil should use a long spoon. But will the lesson be learned? We shall see.
For the rest of the British media there is a lot of what the Germans call schadenfreude - pleasure in other people's misfortunes - going on here. Many in the British media still deeply resent Murdoch as the impertinent colonial – he was branded the “Dirty Digger” – who marched in and took over some of their oldest and proudest media institutions (and successfully took on the notoriously obstructive Fleet Street unions, something the British proprietors lacked the courage to do). His detractors have taken great pleasure from this reversal in his fortunes.
But there are very few in the British media who haven’t been guilty of doing what Murdoch is accused of doing: allowing political considerations to influence editorial agendas and apparently turning a blind eye to dodgy journalism practices.
The collapse of the once-mighty News of the World holds lessons for them too. But you have to wonder whether the rotten tabloid journalism culture, with its tolerance of unethical journalism and creepily symbiotic relationship with politicians, is too deeply rooted to change.