Thursday, July 07, 2011

Hacks, Hackery and Hacking

We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its fits of morality
Thomas Macaulay

There are more than a few hardy perennials in the borders of English public life. Most of them appear as journalistic staples: celebrity divorces, sensational murders, crooked politicians - all have been enlivening our newspapers for decades. But the press is itself a pretty shady conduit for all this public outrage. Recent press barons have included thieves, pornographers, tax dodgers, convicted felons and out-and-out weirdos. All the President's Men this isn't.

So what to think of the hacking scandal? The implications of this story fall roughly into two halves: direct and indirect fallout. Direct first, I think.

It's vanishingly hard to find anyone willing to put the Screws' side of the story, though Fleet Street Fox has a go here, and Toby Young is reassuringly contrarian here. Their defences both boil down to the same point: investigative journalism requires journalists to go to more or less any lengths for a story. You can explain that either by looking at the intense pressures of a newsroom, or by looking to the higher purpose that an intrusive press serves.

I suspect that they're both right that this sort of thing was standard practice on Red Top papers. Listening into mobile voicemails is morally identical to a whole raft of practises that most people would consider beyond the pale - opening mail, rifling through dustbins, doorstopping family members, stealing photographs, embellishing quotes, establishing 'working relationships' with coppers, firemen, paramedics etc. Are we supposed to be shocked that this was going on? It's been common knowledge for decades.

Equally, if the voicemails of celebrities and politicians were being listened to then it's hardly a cataclysmic shock that the other great staples of tabloid journalism - grisly murders and Our Boys - were too. So why the outrage?

Two reasons, I suspect. The first is that people didn't 'know' that these things were going on. All right, the information was public, and a raft of memoirs testify to what tabloid reporters get up to but it hadn't been made crystal clear that this was happening. And there's a definite squick factor to the idea of grubby PIs and hacks listening into the private voicemail of dead children. Justify that one if you can.

The second is that Rupert Murdoch is involved. Murdoch is catnip for some on the left, in the same way that 'the biased BBC' is catnip for some on the right. Plus, they've had over a decade where the purity of their hatred has been masked by the fact that Murdoch was, nominally at least, on their side. The current case is virtually the perfect storm - an unambiguously popular rallying point, a Labour leadership that is not only unsupported by the Murdoch press but also extremely unlikely to recover that support in the medium term, and last but not least the direct personal interest of the rest of the media.

Murdoch has deep pockets, and is prepared to cross-subsidise his loss-making newspapers with his profitable TV networks. The proposed BSkyB takeover (while it will make little practical difference to plurality, given that he already controls the company) might enable all his products to get bundled together in a way that spells real trouble for the tottering giants of Fleet Street. By an astonishing co-incidence, the Guardian has pulled out these stories just as approval for that deal is pending.

This deal will still probably go through - not least because there is really no legal reason why it shouldn't, and this is a legal decision. But the implications for the newspapers are potentially more serious. This is a big can of worms - no newspaper would like the details of its newsgathering operations laid open for all to see, tabloids least of all. An awful lot of skeletons are rattling around in closets at the moment, and their exhumation will not make attractive viewing.

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