Write and wrong: quotes from a scandal

News of the World Dylan Thomas Alamy Economist

The stench of corruption is sickening. I’d always said that the difference between Brits and Americans is that the Yanks trust people and the Brits trust institutions, but now ours lie in tatters and we’re floundering. On the one hand, it’s easy – and right – to react with shock and outrage at just how deep this toxic rabbit-hole goes, but on the other, any sensible person has to recognise the potential for a hysterical witch hunt that does nothing to restore our confidence in the institutions that we need to trust in to function.

We all “know” that newspapers are dirty and politicians corrupt and that there will inevitably be a few rotten coppers on the force – but to see it there writ large as hacks are jailed and police accused of being paid off? That’s not naiveté on the part of the public. It’s a seismic event in our culture that could send shockwaves around the world.

As the Economist reports,

Thanks largely to some splendid muckraking by the Guardian, it is now clear how one tabloid obtained some of its headlines. The News of the World seems routinely to have asked a private investigator to hack into mobile-phone mailboxes, which is a crime. Until this week the victims seemed to be celebrities, publicists, politicians and other journalists—the sort of people who, in the British mind, probably deserve what they get. But a lawyer representing the family of the murdered girl claims that police said her phone was hacked in a way that raised hopes that she was alive. The families of terrorism victims, dead soldiers and two other murdered girls are also said to have been targeted. If true, that is callousness heaped on criminality.

The Guardian is convinced that the corruption goes deeper – that it was more widespread than originally thought – and that the police were paid for helping with stories.

The disclosure of the memos comes four years after the then executive chairman of News International, Les Hinton, told MPs that the organisation believed Goodman was the sole staff offender.

While giving evidence to the Commons culture committee on 6 March 2007, Hinton was asked whether the News of the World had “carried out a full, rigorous internal inquiry” into phone hacking and whether he was “absolutely convinced” that the practice was limited to a single reporter.

It did, of course, get worse as owners News International tried to hide the evidence:

Police are investigating evidence that a News International executive may have deleted millions of emails from an internal archive in an apparent attempt to obstruct Scotland Yard’s inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal.

The archive was said to contain half a terabyte of data – equivalent to 500 editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica. But police now believe that there was an effort to substantially destroy it before NI handed over their new evidence in January. Police believe they have identified the executive responsible by following an electronic audit trail. They have also attempted to retrieve the lost data. The Crown Prosecution Service is believed to have been asked whether the executive can be charged with perverting the course of justice.

As the Economist points out:

It is notable that Britain’s other tabloid newspapers, which love to kick a rival when it is down, have been disturbingly quiet about the allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World. It may turn out that the paper was merely the most enthusiastic, ruthless lawbreaker among several.

Rebekah Brooks, News International’s chief executive, told staff this week that it was inconceivable she knew of the alleged phone hacking when she was editor of the News of the World. Yet if the allegations are true, many journalists at the newspaper would have known about such practices, and failed to report them. That can only happen in an outfit that has lost any sense of right and wrong.

It’s strange and refreshing to hear of a quality publication discussing “right and wrong”. It’s just not discussed by “intelligent” people these days. If you take any sort of moral stance on anything, you will likely find yourself accused of being self-righteous, and thus through peer pressure we’ve found ourselves collectively sunk into a vacuum in which the only values are profit and prestige. Is it therefore any real surprise that this happened?

Our problem is that we have become accustomed to taking bulls***. Take an example from last week: Charlie Brooker’s column discussing Ed Miliband’s faintly terrifying brand of BS.

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The reason for the Speak-and-Spell tactic is obvious: in all three cases (Miliband, Osborne, Darling) the PR handler responsible must have figured that since the interview would be whittled down to one 10-second soundbite for that evening’s news bulletins, and since they didn’t want to risk their man saying anything ill-advised or vaguely interesting, they might as well merely ignore all the questions and impersonate an iPod with just one track on it.

If we didn’t keep swallowing those 10-second slices of s***, maybe they’d stop trying to feed it to us, but it’s just so bloody convenient to have issues we don’t really care about in the first place served up as fun-sized nibbles. Or perhaps we don’t expect the truth in the first place when the PR for the prime minister is himself a former editor of – you’ve guessed it – The News of the World. As The Sunday Times put it,

By Friday, Andy Coulson, the paper’s former editor and subsequently the prime minister’s communications director, had been arrested over alleged involvement in phone hacking and paying bungs to policemen. He also faces the risk of perjury charges. Others will follow him.

While we affect a certain cynicism towards the press, the strict libel laws in the UK mean that it’s actually very difficult for a journalist to deceive the public. At least in terms of outright lies. While the “source” of a lurid gossip story might be less than accurate, a journalist cannot just make something up, which is probably what led to this whole sorry state of affairs: the code of practice in which British newspaper writers operate demands proof. In a post about a minor scandal involving Independent feature writer Johann Hari deliberately mis-attributing interview quotes, Fleet Street Fox writes:

Most of us do a job which, from local news agency to national rag, does not pay as well as people think and has long hours and a lot of people being horrible to each other and to us, and we do it because we think someone should. We are natural born gossips, we are nosey, we stick our oar in and sometimes we make mistakes. Things get bent at times, and often the people who come to us with a tale are trying their hardest to get a lie published – such as the soldier ‘abuse’ pictures which got Piers Morgan the bullet. They manage it more often than they should, not least because journalists can be surprisingly credulous and naive – we’re so used to having to tell the truth that we forget others are not under the same compunction.

What the UK press is mostly guilty of is confusing “public interest” for “what the public is interested in”, as we guiltily lap up tasteless and irrelevant gossip for our own prurient satisfaction. We are all guilty of this to a certain extent, but what we need to do more is to draw a line between what we think we “need” to know and bitchy gossip that doesn’t do any good to anyone. Do you really need to click on that pic of a celebrity’s cellulite? Do you really need to know about so-and-so’s “agony” over their relationship breakup? Or the pain of their bereavement?

Again, in the Guardian, Charlie Brooker describes the News of the World‘s final issue, and exactly what was so disgusting about the publication in the first place.

Inside is an account of the paper’s history so rose-tinted you can smell the petals, focusing on its scoops and ignoring ghastly low points like the 1988 story about the actor David Scarboro (who played EastEnders’ Mark Fowler before Todd Carty), in which it printed images of the psychiatric unit where he was receiving treatment. He later killed himself.

The paper was abruptly shut down following a sequence of events last week. On Tuesday, advertisers including Ford had decided the publication was a “toxic brand” and began to withdraw their adverts. The bank Halifax followed on Wednesday, as news broke of the new victims including families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though few were sorry to see the nasty little paper close down, it’s impossible not to feel some pity for the hundreds of employees – uninvolved in this scandal – who lost their jobs while Rebekah Brooks kept hers.

There will always be a demand – perhaps a necessity – for a tabloid press here. Yes, it’s referred to as the “gutter press”, and there is an acknowledgement and an acceptance of the content of this sort of paper – lurid, gossippy, mean-spirited and hypocritical. What it never was before was criminal. We expect our politicians to fiddle their expenses; we don’t expect them to collude on vast-scale matters of corruption. We expect the police to be sometimes incompetent; we don’t expect them to take bribes. That isn’t – and can’t be – the way things work here.

What will be interesting is to see how this is resolved. Even though the public are baying for Rupert Murdoch’s blood, will their relentless greed for the type of grubby headline obtained by illegal means be finally sated?

Simon Edwards from Bath wrote this to the editor of The Times:

We have not been naive. We know that underhand techniques have been used to bring the most lurid stories to our breakfast tables. But what Parris fails to recognise is that the News of the World scandal follows the collapse of the banking system and the MP’s expenses. All reveal something profoundly corrupt at the heart of our society and “the people” will no longer tolerate it.

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