Do we have the press we deserve?
Updated 5 July 2011
On 4 July it emerged that the News of the World had done far worse than hack into the voicemail inboxes of celebrities and politicians. Someone working for the paper had accessed the inbox of the then missing teenager Milly Dowler. At some point between Milly’s disappearance and the discovery of her dead body, voicemails from her phone were deleted. This act, we are told, caused her parents – who had no doubt been franticly calling her but unable to leave further messages at a full inbox, to believe she was still alive.
This depraved act has, thankfully, been taken seriously by Parliament – the whole sordid affair will be debated by the House of Commons on 6 July.
There has already been a considerable public backlash against the News of the World, with calls for advertisers to pull out their commercial support for the paper. Some have already indicated they will indeed take such action.
I am sure I speak for most people when I say I sincerely hope the perpetrators of this criminal and morally bankrupt behaviour are subject to the full weight of the law.
I can’t help but wonder, however, when similar scrutiny will fall upon the role of the Metropolitan Police and the widespread speculation concerning their collusion in the mobile phone hacking scandal.
The British press has a fearsome reputation both at home and abroad. It’s one of the reasons so many former UK journalists find high-powered jobs as corporate communications advisers to some of the biggest names worldwide.
Investigative journalism at its best has brought down tyrants, exposed fraudsters, and highlighted miscarriages of justice. It is no coincidence that in some of the most locked-down regimes there are more constraints upon what the press can effectively get away with. Indeed, the freedom of the press is one of those concepts clung to fiercely by many in this country.
Rightly so, in my opinion.
But – as anyone who has read the British press widely in the last 15 years will know – the excesses of the tabloid media have caused many a raised eyebrow.
From Fake Sheikhs to allegations of Nazi-themed sex parties there has been an unending stream of sensational stories to titillate and tantalise. Many seem to blur the lines between that which is in the public interest and those things that are deemed to be of interest to members of the newspaper-buying public.
As a former journalist, I have enjoyed the freedom to ask challenging questions and to protect my sources. I’ve had libel writs served on me, and even death threats. OK, just one death threat – but one is enough. I never felt I had to curtail my journalistic instincts in order to kowtow to the whims of publishers, advertisers, the police, the subjects of the pieces I wrote, anyone in fact.
When I hear people complain about the “rubbish that gets printed in the papers” my standard response has usually been to say we get the press we deserve and to make the point that the so-called rubbish only gets published because people flock to read it.
Shady goings on behind the scenes at some of the UK biggest newspapers have now begun to be dragged into the light in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal (not a word I use lightly, but one which I think fits here).
The ins and outs of who knew what, and who sanctioned the illegal actions – namely hacking into voicemail messages on the mobile phones of a string of celebrities, politicians, civil servants and other public figures – is still the subject of debate and investigation. But some of the details to emerge are as damning of the culture of the UK media as they are downright shocking.
Top of my list of things to be concerned about is the link between News of the World reporters and the Metropolitan Police. I offer here only my opinion, but having heard that Metropolitan Police officers were paid sources for some News of the World reporters (how many news reporters wouldn’t like to be tipped off about high profile arrests, so they could be on hand to cover them) I start to feel a growing sense of unease.
You don’t need to be a genius to figure out the incredible potential for a conflict of interests when a newspaper allegedly encouraging its reporters to break the law is also regularly paying serving police officers for news leads. Throw into the mix the claim by a former senior officer in the Metropolitan Police, Brian Paddick, that his phone had been hacked into by the News of the World and the whole thing starts to feel very grubby indeed.
It’s unpleasantly reminiscent of the script of a movie, where the mob has paid off the police to ensure a blind eye is always turned to their criminal activity.
Now that the lid has been blown off this miserable affair, I’m left asking myself do we get the press we deserve?
I worry this is more than an isolated case of a newspaper’s ethics being trampled in the rush to boost sales in the midsts of a highly competitive media landscape.
This is, I fear, as much a wider dereliction of societal morality – an attitude of if I can get away with it, then I’m going to do it.
In October 1987, in an interview with one of the least combative publications imaginable, Woman’s Own, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: “… who is society? There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”
Clearly this is nonsense. Dangerous nonsense though, which set the tone for the next two decades and beyond.
The promotion of the individual, and their so-called rights, that took place in this country and in others (yes America I am looking at you) has spawned a generation of individuals who simply don’t care about the implications, or even the legality, of their actions.
That there were journalists working for the most widely-read British Sunday newspaper who felt breaking the law was an acceptable route to scoops and stories is, for me, an indication that the UK’s moral compass may be broken.
Do we have the press we deserve?
Yes, we do.
And that is a reputation to be feared.
– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Like all journalists, you've cherry picked the bit of Thatcher's interview. Let's quote it in full, shall we?
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand”I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or”I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—” It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it” . That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people:”All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say:”But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say:”Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!”
Are you saying you disagree with that? Are you saying that people should be able to just live on the dole, to expect government to sort their lives out, rather than trying to fix themselves?
Thanks for your comment Joseph.
If I may correct your opening statement, I am not a journalist. I *was* a journalist – a point made in my post.
You ask a lot of questions. They're quite confrontational, aren't they?
I'm not going to answer them.
Thanks for dropping by.
On reflection, and because a couple of people contacted me to say they thought my reaction to Joseph Takagi's comment might put people off leaving comments in future, I have decided to leave a more considered response.
Thanks for taking the time to read the post, Joseph.
You're quite right, I selected the part of the quote that best illustrated the point I was trying to make. I don't think there's anything uniquely journalistic about doing that though.
One could argue that the extract I highlighted (which is the most frequently quoted part of that interview) was given so much credence, by the media and others, that it almost took on a life of its own.
Others have sought to blame Margaret Thatcher for all the ills that have befallen the UK over the last couple of decades. That wasn't my intention and I think it would be stretching things to take that meaning from my original post.
To deal with your questions, no I don't think that people should be allowed to opt out of being productive members of society while the state (ie taxpayers) picks up the tab.
By the same token I don't agree with everything that Margaret Thatcher said in that interview, and I believe that much of it was cleverly crafted political spin intended to disguise an agenda which was centred around a libertarian ideology that ultimately does not serve the needs of society as a whole.