I think it’s safe to say that unless you’re a senior News International employee, you know all about the phone hacking scandal. Under the not-so-watchful eye of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson the News of the World rifled through the private messages of nearly 6,000 people with scant regard for law, ethics or just basic human decency. The revelations have come leaking out steadily over the past few months of the Leveson Inquiry with News International employees passing the buck so often that there’s only change left for Rupert Murdoch. It began in 2005 with the hacking of Prince William’s voicemail, peaked in July 2011 with the news they had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone and at the latest count has exposed corruption and collusion between politicians, the police and News International. The behaviour of the News of the World represents the single biggest blow to the integrity of journalism in my lifetime and as the inquiry continues, things only seem to be getting worse.
The true horror of the scandal comes with the company and its employee’s abhorrent lack of contrition or responsibility for their actions. There is clearly no honour among thieves at the News of the World with countless sacrificial lambs being offered up to appease the public’s appetite for justice. Shockingly, every step of the way the lies are revealed to go deeper and deeper and right now the question seems to be how long can the Murdoch empire survive? The man himself was described in a recent government report as exhibiting “wilful blindness to what was going on in his publications and companies”. Wilful blindness is a generous description; I prefer moral myopia. Often, it just becomes a bare-faced lie, like the following statement from Andy Coulson that he dares to deliver with a hint of smug superiority. After winning newspaper of the year under his editorship in 2005, Coulson said: “The News of the World doesn’t pretend to do anything other than reveal big stories and titillate and entertain the public, while exposing crime and hypocrisy”. We’ll get to the first part later, but ‘exposing crime and hypocrisy’? I don’t think I need to highlight the bleak irony of those words for you.
The question that is important for the future of the newspaper industry is why did the News of the World hack? The main reason was their desperate need to “reveal big stories” and “entertain the public”, like Coulson claimed in 2005. Those goals are worthy enough on their own but not when you try to achieve them like this. The paper’s decisive blow came with the revelation that their journalists had hacked the phone of abducted schoolgirl Milly Dowler and actively used this information to create headlines. Astonishingly, Surrey police were aware of the hacking but didn’t act on it because, according to one source, “there was a hell of a lot of dirty stuff going on”. The paper was rightly condemned but it still feels slightly hollow that this story was what it took to stir the public’s anger. Don’t get me wrong, what they did was disgusting and morally bankrupt but it seems like it took this final innocent victim to prick the nation’s conscience. The prevailing attitude seems to be that all those countless celebrities they also hacked deserved what they got. Look at them swanning around being rich and successful, let’s ignore their right to privacy and destroy their lives. In fact, they’re famous: they don’t have a right to privacy. They signed it away in blood the second you saw them on TV or heard them on the radio.
As Coulson proudly alludes to it, his former paper spends its days hunting down more and more sordid exclusives to proudly smear across its front pages like a monkey using its own excrement as wallpaper. As inane and worthless as I feel this celebrity gossip is, it’s not the main issue. If you really feel it would enrich your life to read about stranger A filming themselves having sex with stranger B then go ahead. Does it somehow sound more depraved and voyeuristic when I simplify it like that? No, the real issue is the pretence we’ve all been keeping up that this is somehow news, that the tabloids are doing us a favour by chronicling the sex lives of the rich and famous.
I’ll let you into a little secret: we don’t need to know. Celebrity gossip is a public service in the same way that spying on your neighbours having sex is a public service. It all boils down to the same thing; the only difference is the pathetic thrill we get from realising that celebrities are fallible humans just like us. We watch these individuals who have become successful, sometimes through luck but often through hard work, and we rub our hands with glee as their dignity and pride is destroyed in front of our eyes in an easy to digest double page pull-out. We’re just as complicit as them, because you know what, Coulson was right: they were just giving the public what they wanted. We didn’t care to ask how they came by these exclusive scoops, we just sat there and lapped it up like hyenas being tossed the bloody remains of someone’s hopes and dreams.
I have more faith in the public interest than that. We read it because they write it, and they write it because it’s easier than actually doing proper journalism and reporting on something important. Tabloids aren’t destroying journalism, immoral and illegal tabloid practices are. If there is any good to come of this scandal and the Leveson Inquiry it will be tarring and feathering the culprits and making an example of them for future generations of journalists.
This article was originally featured in Exeposé: http://issuu.com/exepose/docs/exepose_week_27_issuu