Even the News of the World journalists who have all been made redundant through no fault of their own deserve only limited sympathy.
The first good thing about the News of the World’s closure is that it could make it harder for News International – and indeed NewsCorp – to limit the commercial damage done to other Murdoch-owned outlets. People in Britain are still furious and disgusted by the paper’s illegal – not to mention immoral – activities, and, with the paper gone, Murdoch and Brooks might struggle to direct this much public outrage towards the News of the World alone. Just as we were expected to believe for years and years that the original phone-hacking scandal was just one lone reporter at News of the World, so we’re now expected to trust Rebekah Brooks when she says she has “no reason to believe” phone-hacking has happened at any other News International paper. Apart from the fact that having “no reason to believe” something has happened is hardly a guarantee that it has been thoroughly investigated (after all, David Cameron had “no reason” to mistrust Andy Coulson, didn’t he?), while the organisation still has this inflammatory woman at its helm, it will, surely, be difficult for thinking members of the public not to feel a deep mistrust towards not just one particular paper, but the whole of News International?
So it’s possible, albeit a bit optimistic, that British consumers will decide not to give a single penny to Brooks, whether via the Sun, the Times, Sky subscriptions, HarperCollins, or any other Murdoch products.
Certainly the BSkyB takeover bid must be halted, at the very least, as Ed Miliband says (rather bravely, considering that he’s allegedly already received threats) until the criminal investigation is over.
The second reason not to cry too hard over the loss of the News of the World, and the loss of jobs for those who worked there, is quite simply this: it isn’t a very nice paper. In fact, it’s a downright vindictive, hateful, and (if you’re a paediatrician) dangerous example of what we laughingly call tabloid “journalism.”
Let’s not, in a desperate, irrational kind of liberalism, romanticise the tabloids – or the people who work for them.
Perhaps they’re not all cut from the same ridiculous self-aggrandising cloth that hacks like Paul McMullen are made of. They can’t all believe, surely, that being successful in your field means it is fine for the tabloid press to violate your human rights, and violate you as a person (not to mention violate some of the most basic laws of the land)? Well, it’s difficult to say, because these great believers in openness and honesty seem to have become curiously shy over the past week. So all we have to judge them by – not having access to their private voicemails, alas – is their own journalism.
Laying aside the legal and moral disgrace of hacking the phones of people like Milly Dowler, the victims of the 7/7 bombing, and families of serving soldiers, tabloid defenders like Paul McMullen and John Gaunt, and indeed much of the coverage by papers like the Sun of the phone-hacking scandal, has tried to position the argument as celebrities having their privacy invaded, which is a grey area at worst, and at best, is somehow morally justified because celebrities make a lot of money and sometimes court the media.
Keeping the discussion fixed around celebrities makes the argument easier. Everyone we see on television with the power to speak up – Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, and so on – they’re all automatically rich, successful, and popular, and therefore no-one should have much sympathy when the media hangs their dirty knickers out for everyone to see. Right? But quite aside from people like Chris Jefferies and Robert Murat, who end up in the papers through absolutely no fault of their own, only to be totally demonised and harrassed, there are some genuine spotlight figures who are – despite being ‘celebrities’ – not rich, not powerful, and are really easy scapegoat and humiliate. Some public figures are even extremely vulnerable, and there are some who are hunted and harassed by the press not just when they’re having sex with someone else’s wife at a dinner party, but while they’re going through, for example, an emotional breakdown.
Kerry Katona, to take one example of an extremely easy celebrity scapegoat, went bankrupt, and battled with bipolar disorder and a drug problem. Courtesy of the News of the World, Katona’s friends and children were treated to stories which declared things like: “Kerry Katona goes mad on coke after 4 day booze bender!” – complete with photos – denouncing her as “shameless,” and quoting unnamed “sources” falling over themselves to talk about “how mad Kerry is!” They also got to see the special feature about their mother, “Kerry’s in meltdown,” with more nameless “sources” decrying how Kerry is always “ranting and rambling,” and on occasion has had to be calmed by a psychiatrist.
And what of Susan Boyle, a lady described by Professor David Wilson as having “long-term psychological needs”? Boyle, who has spoken outright – to News of the World directly, in fact – about suicide attempts because of prolonged bullying, and who was checked into the Priory following a mental breakdown, does not, surely, need or deserve to be continually mocked as the “hairy angel” by the News of the World, nor chased into a car whilst having a mental health breakdown.
There is no legal issue here perhaps, and perhaps there shouldn’t be. But there is also no argument for public interest, or exposing hypocrisy. There is certainly no moral argument at all. The tabloids can bleat and whine about it being what people want as much as they like: this is straight up and down a case of powerful people dehumanising and scapegoating less powerful people, for profit. It’s despicable, it’s unnecessary, and – at the risk of being denounced as a total snob – every single person who chooses to work at or buy these vindictive, hateful publications should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves. You need to ask yourself some honest questions about what you get out of reading an article entitled “Sad Amy 3 drunk blackouts.” That’s today’s Sun, by the way. Wondering about the type of people who read this, I scrolled down and saw that the first comment declared “at least she has made enough money not to be a drain on the NHS!” So that’s alright then.
Let’s be absolutely clear: this has nothing to do with freedom of the press. There’s no particular need to take away Jan Moir’s right to write homophobic articles about Stephen Gately in the Daily Mail, or Polly Toynbee’s right to rant about the banks; Richard Littlejohn’s right to whine about asylum seekers and transsexuals, and the Socialist Worker’s right to whine about, well, anything and everything they can think of. It isn’t about the right-wing press vs the left-wing press: the Spectator is far, far, far to the right of the News of the World and the Sun, and so is, arguably, the Daily Telegraph. And it isn’t about celebrity gossip snobbery. Whilst the Spectator calls for rises in VAT and tougher anti-strike laws; while the Daily Telegraph has featured a Telegraph blog piece calling for voting rights to be linked to how much tax you pay; whilst Heat magazine and More! magazine run endless gossip about which celebrities have done what, wearing what, and with whom, none of these publications are actively hateful. They don’t feel the need to insert the adjective “Sad!” whilst describing a person’s psychological destruction, for example.
The laws don’t need to be changed: practices like hacking into phones and bribing the police are already illegal, and the press should be free to write about whatever they want, if they obtain the information legally. But there is a broader point: people should – especially when they spend all the livelong day writing articles that scream from the treetops about the need for greater personal responsibility amongst, say, poor people who have children they can’t afford – take some bloody responsibility as a human being for their actions. “It makes money,” and “other people do it too” are not acceptable excuses for treating another human being as less than a human being.
So no, it’s no great victory that News of the World has gone. But it’s no great sadness, either. If you work for a paper like News of the World, for an organisation like News International, if you spew out hatred and nastiness day after day after day against people who cannot defend themselves, if your employer is extraordinarily keen on rants about trade unions and the unemployed, well, don’t be surprised that the organisation turns out to be not particularly keen on workers’ rights.
Should we feel sympathy for all those law-abiding journalists, now out of a job? Compassion is important, but my God is it hard to find sympathy for people who have spent every working day dehumanising not just famous people, but asylum-seekers, immigrants, disabled people, benefit claimants, women, chavs, Muslims, terrorist suspects, drug addicts, alcoholics, gay people, transgendered people, women, the mentally ill, gypsies, and goodness knows who else without so much as a shiver of remorse, and all purely for profit.
Even if Rupert Murdoch still manages to take over BSkyB, and even if Rebekah Brooks does stay in her position as Chief Executive of News International, and even if Murdoch’s empire continues to flourish unabated, perhaps one small positive thing can still come out of this whole debacle. Perhaps a few more people will see vindictive behaviour – in the press or anywhere else – towards people that it’s not easy to sympathise with, and think again before joining in and giving them a kick, however small. Perhaps, just perhaps, a few more of us will learn that when we allow the powerful to repeatedly kick the the vulnerable, sooner or later, they can, and will, get around to people we actually do care about. The trouble is that by then, it’s often too late.