Here’s a thing: what will be the tipping point that means that the UK press faces regulation – however much it doesn’t want it?
The mainstream media has, thus far, managed to squirm out of any form of independent regulation, following the Leveson Inquiry.
And that bit about “independent” is important: no matter what some papers claimed, there was no plan for what the press publish to be subject to the machinations of politicians.
To remind ourselves: Leveson followed revelations about widespread phone-hacking – which, it is increasingly clear, did not just happen at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, although there was an industrial amount of hacking there. The Mirror group is now in the spotlight too.
In an interesting little side note, it seems that four members of staff on the Mail on Sunday were told by the police in 2006 that their phones had been hacked by the NotW, but bosses at the Mail group decided to keep it secret – and they didn’t bother to mention it in evidence to Leveson either.
Mail on Sunday editor at the time, Peter Wright, has been a member of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) since 2008, taking over the position previously held by Mail editor in chief, Paul Dacre, from 1999-2008.
During that time, the PCC issued two reports on hacking, in essence backing up the version of events from News International that it hadn’t happened often and that it was all just the work of a “rogue reporter”.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, though, Wright and Dacre have subsequently succumbed to amnesia over the entire business of the hacking of their members of staff’s phones.
Mind you, amnesia, ignorance or straightforward incompetence seem to be the defence de rigueur of senior newspaper folk when it comes to such matters.
After all, her admitted total lack of knowledge of anything that went on in Rebekah Brooks’s newsrooms was accepted as a defence by the court in the recent hacking trial, while News International godfather, Murdoch himself, has been known to be remarkably vague when being questioned over the affair.
It says something for the confidence many of these people have in their power over government that the revelations have not noticeably improved the behavior of the tabloid media in particular.
Not that it’s the tabloids alone: Murdoch’s Times – which used to be the paper of record – has plummeted so far since he bought it that it’s current idea of political ‘debate’ is to call the leader of the opposition “weird”.
Such an approach, by nobody’s definition, can be remotely positive for the public discourse.
But for the sake of this article, let’s stick with the tabloids.
It’s not so long ago that several papers revealed themselves entirely happy to splash pictures on their front pages of the moment that Mick Jagger was told that his partner had taken her own life.
Public interest, anyone?
In the last few days, the odious Richard Littlejohn,whose bilious ignorance was just the most well-known example of the ‘mostering’of Lucy Meadows, who also took her own life, has again used his column in the Daily Mail to illustrate his ignorance of and attitude toward trans issues, with comments about Kellie Maloney – formerly known as boxing promoter Frank – looking as though she is in “drag”.
But a glance at this morning’s tabloids reveals a general approach that blithely ignores basic humanity, together with any idea of journalistic ethics (yes, they do exist).
The subject is the death of Hollywood star Robin Williams, who died by suicide.
The front pages alone seem to be competing to see who can publish the most details.
In the rush for sales, editors have chosen to deliberately ignore the guidelines on reporting suicide issued by the Samaritans.
These call, among other things, for great care to be exercised on details about how a person ended their life, precisely because readers who are themselves in a vulnerable situation can be influenced to copy a sensationally-reported suicide.
But sensation boost sales and sales matter more than human beings when it comes to the tabloids.
Point six of the National Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct says that a journalist “does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest”.
That’s the biggie, isn’t it: what is ‘the public interest’?
What was in the public interest that justified seeing Jagger’s reaction to the death of a loved one?
What was in the public interest that justifies the additional pain being inflicted on Williams’s family, and the potential danger to other vulnerable people caused by the nature of the reporting?
Here’s a clue: there is none.
The apologists can whine all they like that the public interest is what the public is interested in, but this is nonsense.
Let’s look at an example of ‘the public interest’.
Some years ago, during John Major’s time as Prime Minister, with a government set on promoting ‘family values’, a junior minister called Tim Yeo stood up at the Conservative Party annual conference and made a speech lambasting single mothers as the biggest problem of the day.
A couple of months later, it was revealed (in the News of the World) that he had been having an affair himself, and was the father of a child to a single woman. He resigned.
Here was a member of a government that was promoting one thing to the public, and condemning those who didn’t behave as it wanted, who included members who were themselves behaving in the same way.
That is why it was in the public interest to publish a story revealing that Yeo had been having an affair – not because of the affair itself, but because of the double standards by a member of the government.
And yes, the people that buy tabloids – particularly when they buy promises of lurid, sensationalist copy inside – are complicit in this pimping of other people’s private lives.
And as long as there is no regulation of the industry, it is a situation that seems likely to continue.
So, as I asked at the top of this: what will be the tipping point? What will it take before tabloids are forced to clean up their act?
After all, the hacking of a murdered schoolgirl’s phone quite clearly wasn’t enough.