It goes without saying (though it’s probably still worth saying it) that the latest in the News International phone-hacking scandal is beyond the pale. Completely indefensible in every way. I couldn’t care less if The Sun and News of the World went down the pan (though I know they won’t) and everyone working at those rags was thrown onto the dole.
It strikes me that there is a wider point to this whole affair, however. As it stands, the likelihood is that this will follow the same trajectory as the outrage that followed Princess Diana’s death: the media will isolate a certain section of itself (the paparazzi then; NOTW now) and condemn it, declare it unacceptable, demand that standards are raised (though the failure of other tabloids to do this today speaks volumes about their own practices). Readers generally will join in. There may be short-term boycotts, promises of change and ‘codes of conduct’. Then…it will all blow over and we’ll all be back where we started. The paparazzi went back to their business without comment and, at some point, the tabloids are going to return to underhand (perhaps illegal) methods to gain ‘stories’.
And why? Well, just look at the stories which DO dominate the tabloids today. Utter drivel about some celebrities built around grainy paparazzi photographs, reported fights and reconciliations which have such detail that they are either made up or obtained in ways that are, at the very least, morally dubious. This is the bread and butter of the tabloids and there must be a reason for that. It sells. It sells in the same way that Heat magazine sells, or ‘documentaries’ following the latest Kerry Katona breakdown sell, or ‘simulated reality’ shows which promise the amoral participants a taste of ‘tabloid fame’ sell. There is a line to be drawn between all of these things and yet we do all that we can to avoid drawing it, and compartmentalise our tastes. It’s alright for us to watch the debasement and humiliation of people if they are willing participants. But surely, taken to an extreme, this is exactly the appetite which the tabloids are seeking to satiate with phone-hacking? They want ever more personal, ever more extreme, ever more embarrassing stories about public figures, even if the people in question are only in the public for horrific reasons that are not of their own choosing.
If anything is to really, fundamentally change, I think each and every one of us needs to accept some personal responsibility for the society we live in. We need to try and stop fuelling the demand for all of this shit and recognise that our prurience and delight in devouring rubbish about public figures has real consequences for everyone. It collectively debases us. In supporting the purveyors of this we are supporting a specific ideology and encouraging (not merely allowing) the debasement of public life, of our politics, of our morality. To coin a phrase, we are all in this together.