Damien McCrystal’s article ‘Phone-hacking: the case for the defence,’ published in today’s Guardian, not only attempts to justify the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone and the deleting of messages, but actively praises this callous, profit-driven illegal activity as “showing initiative.” Most people are rightly disgusted, but we should be honest: victim-blaming is becoming more and more socially acceptable.
Damien McCrystal’s reasoning process is reminiscent of something troubling that Rebekah Brooks said whilst giving evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee last week. Ms Brooks talked about a “suspected paedophile” who was found to be innocent after “answering questions to the media.”
With neither the authority nor the expertise to do so, the tabloid press have decided to take over our centuries-old justice system.
It is not the role of the press to “show initiative” by interfering in criminal investigations, and it is not the role of the tabloid press to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspect. People like Damien McCrystal and Rebekah Brooks demonstrate a shockingly arrogant disrespect for the democratic rule of law when they forget or ignore this. Ironically, it is the democratic rule of law that the paper Mr McCrystal once worked for (the Sun) is so keen on seeing enforced as harshly as possible. There will be no reduced sentences for guilty pleas for any News International employees placed in the dock, presumably.
Let us deliberate over the extraordinary logic of this: Damien McCrystal – ex-employee of a paper that wants us to snitch on our neighbour over their benefit claims – argues cheerily – in defence of the paper that called for an open house season on the whereabouts of paedophiles – about how serious, organised law-breaking happens all the time, and he knows about it, along with everyone else, and he chooses not to take that evidence of harmful illegality to the police. Then closes his column with what sounds like a cowardly threat to papers like the Guardian that pursued the story.
As if that’s not enough, he asserts that the medical records of Gordon Brown’s son are fair game because Fraser Brown’s illness affects his dad’s ability to do his job. Well, for a start, the government had better improve financial support for carers mighty fast, now the health of our family members is suddenly a valid consideration for anyone assessing our employability. Perhaps the Sun will back such a campaign?
Yet, as much as most people seem to be rather repulsed by Damien McCrystal’s arrogant and dispassionate way of articulating his case, the central thrust of his argument is actually a world view that has been doing the rounds for a while, is socially acceptable in a variety of situations, and gets used as a mitigating factor is all kinds of nefarious behaviour, from rape to terrorism; from mugging to domestic violence. The argument is that the responsibility for preventing illegal and unethical behaviour lies not with the perpetrator, but with the person harmed by that behaviour – and that this applies completely irrespective of which party is the most powerful. Mr McCrystal places the responsibility and blame for phone-hacking with any phone-owner who didn’t go to all possible lengths to secure their phones against illegal invasions of privacy.
It should strike us as astonishing, illogical, and cruel to us to consider such a world view, but in most cases, for most people, it doesn’t. We have created a confusing world for ourselves: a blurry mass of moral chaos; a jumble of the hedonistic, rebellious libertarianism of the 1960s, and the consumerist, individualistic materialism of the 1980s. We all boisterously declare that we ‘have the right’ to do what we like, say what we like, buy what we like, and sell what we like, and when those ‘rights’ are coupled with a dehumanising belief that profit is justification for almost anything, well, Damien McCrystal and Paul McMullan are just the inevitable, caricatured consequence of that attitude. If you’re powerful, you ‘have the right’ to exploit the vulnerable, and if anyone asks why? It makes money. They should have known their phones weren’t secure: if they don’t like being exploited, they shouldn’t allow themselves to be.
It is that same culture of victim-blaming that allows Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous actions to be blamed by so many on legitimate frustrations with ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘political correctness.’ (If you don’t believe me, take a look at any of the Daily Telegraph’s online articles about Breivik and scroll down.)
It is this culture of victim-blaming, too, which lies behind comments like that of the controversial Canadian cop who sparked a storm of ‘Slutwalks’ across the globe by suggesting that women and girls should avoid “dressing like sluts” if they don’t want to be raped. (If?) Victim-blaming, as any feminist will tell you, is one of the main reasons why only 50,000 rapes a year are reported to the police, while Rape Crisis get 80,000 calls.
It is the victim-blaming mentality that says gay couples who get homophobic abuse for showing affection in public should just be timid and keep their love private to avoid offending sensitive homophobes; it is victim-blaming when Bergouhi Elissa – the American lady who is suing the state of New York this month after her 12 year old (12, for goodness sake) son hanged himself following his school’s alleged failures to respond to frequent complaints of her son being on the receiving end of “repeated and frequent taunting, ridicule, menacing, threatening abuse and bullying,” gets told it is her fault for not taking her son out of school, or even his, for being different. (It is his “perceived sexual orientation” that is said to have been the main focus of the bullying.)
Victim-blaming is often talked about under the guise of ‘personal responsibility’: not expecting any help, handouts, or protection from others, in other words. This is what our societal moral compass has come to: we equate the inability to protect yourself or your child from the casual infliction of harm from others with being irresponsible.
Don’t misunderstand: conservatives are absolutely right to lament the absence of personal responsibility in our society. But how can the state expect the poor, the vulnerable, the angry and the uneducated to bother with such vaguely defined concepts, when the most powerful and privileged people in the world stomp around doing just whatever they please with no regard for the consequences, nor for the democratic rule of law?
Personality responsibility begins here, with this understanding: there is no excuse for inflicting avoidable suffering on another human being. None. It doesn’t matter, Paul McMullan, if you think a grimy public interest in the humiliation of, say, a film star’s daughter like Jennifer Elliott will make you some money, and it doesn’t even matter that you have a ‘right’ to do it. When your actions are causing suffering and distress to someone, then for goodness sake, take responsibility for your own actions – not for their suffering, but for your own actions, of which you are in full control – and bloody well stop. Preferably before they commit suicide. (NB: There is a clip of McCullen accepting culpability for Elliott’s suicide which is curiously no longer available on the BBC website, although it was there a couple of weeks ago.)
Anyone sympathetic to the papers and hacks who publish these vindictive stories, by the way, should apply what I affectionately call the ‘Love Test.’ If someone you loved was an alcoholic, was having a mental breakdown, had become homeless, had a disabled child, or had put on masses of weight, would you think articles degrading them for it were acceptable? Why should it be okay for other people’s loved ones?
These tabloid hacks remind me of something my father – a big advocate of personal responsibility – used to tell me when I was young: if you want to be treated like an adult, he used to say, then act like one. If the tabloid press wants to self-regulate and be considered as an institution of power in their own right, with the ability to hold democratically elected politicians and independent judicial experts to account, and even special exemptions from the law on the rare occasions where there is a public interest (like the Daily Telegraph’s excellent expenses scandal scoop) then they need to act a little bit more like grow-ups with some real constitutional awareness, and a little bit less like gossiping 14 year olds.
People can call it moral superiority, pontificating, liberalism gone mad, whatever they like: this hateful culture of victim-blaming has to be challenged. If we allow people like Damien McCrystal to make up the rules we will get a world where sick people are punished for being unemployed; where gay people are to blame for religious bigotry being brought to book; where any number of ridiculous things are to blame for sexual assault; where feminism is to blame for the effects of the recession; where Muslim groups are blamed for white pride killings like the Oslo shooting, as well as being blamed for ‘Islamic’ ones like 7/7, and where immigration is to blame for racism.
We have seen, thanks to Nick Davies’ exposure of the News of the World scandal, where this culture of victim-blaming dressed up as personal responsibility leads: a dark, rotting, stinking hole of amoral social Darwinism, into which Britain has somehow partially sleepwalked. We need to stand up to it – all of us – now, and dig ourselves out. Don’t imagine for a second that it’s not your business; not your problem. Remember the love test: we are all victims now.