A sentimental scandal

Like pretty much everyone I know, I watched the Culture, Media and Sport Committee ask questions of two Murdochs and a Brooks. Throughout I was caught somewhere between mirth, outrage and squirming discomfort. It was a bizarre event (even without the unhelpful childishness of Jonnie Marbles) and one that, in Murdoch Senior’s case at least, would have been unthinkable just a couple of weeks ago.

That #hackgate (as we surely must now call it) has travelled so far, so fast is astounding, all the more so since it’s only just beginning. But it has already proved mesmerising. Forget The Apprentice, this is the ‘shared media experience’ that Sky’s multi-channel universe was going to consign to history.

On the substance, it’s hard to say anything about the car crash that is News International’s UK operations. In part, this is just because it’s moving so fast that any observation I could make would be out of date before the sentence was completed. I am in awe of the journalists, Tweeters and bloggers who have produced oceans of text over the past couple of weeks, exploring every twist and turn, and I am aware that anything I could add would add very little.

Suffice to say, the (alleged) facts, from illegal hacking to complicit coppers and pally politicians, are worthy of the level of opprobrium and public outrage they have prompted. And, yes, I admit to a degree of delight – glee, even – at both Murdoch’s discomfort and Cameron’s aimless ineptitude. Was the News of the World uniquely evil? Is Murdoch the proprietor of the worse stable on Fleet Street? Are Labour politicos, past and present, unblemished? A resounding no to all of them (although Labour’s Tom Watson deserves a medal, or a pint, which I’m sure he would prefer).

But there is one uncomfortable thought that has nagged me since the Milly Dowler allegations ignited this inferno of moral outrage and I’ve been trying to find a way to express it without appearing to be callous and contrary. My awkward thought returned with Murdoch Senior’s first, rehearsed contribution to Tuesday’s circus, faithfully repeated the next morning on the front pages of his newspapers (and unaccountably the FT also). When Rupert said that it was the most humble day of his life (itself a curious turn of phrase), he was talking about the Dowler allegations.

The whole thrust of his contrition was that the ‘bond of trust’ with his readers had been broken by this one case, just one of thousands of accusations of law-breaking and intrusion. The implication of the Murdochs’ response to the scandal, of the media coverage of it, indeed of the circumstances under which a long running sore finally ruptured, is that a precondition of our moral outrage is the presence at the scene of a dead child.

Of course, I am moved by the death of a child. I think intruding into the phone messages of a missing girl (even if it were legal, and didn’t jeopardise a criminal investigation) is morally unjustifiable. Same goes for the widows of young men sent to fight overseas, or the victims of a terrorist attack closer to home. But also, as far as I’m concerned, for Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, John Prescott and Steve Coogan, whatever I think of them as individuals or as categories. It’s the ‘crime’ that offends me, not the character of the victim. The kind of speculative ‘fishing trips’, such as those allegedly conducted against Gordon Brown, are if anything more disturbing than the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, where the intention was to find specific information, rather than hopefully to dig up dirt (that they found nothing on Brown says quite a lot about the man).

If, as Murdoch implied in his evidence on Tuesday, intrusion into the privacy of a private individual is unacceptable, but public figures are fair game, then we will only have saints entering public life. And there aren’t any of them. I do not accept that the necessary cost of being a politician, or an actor, or a footballer, is that the man from News International has a free hand to root through your rubbish bins on spurious ‘public interest’ grounds. There may come a time when I feel that public life is enhanced by revelations about a film star’s infidelities or a politician’s sick child, but it hasn’t happened yet.

But more than that, I find it disturbing that the vast majority of the press and the public seem to agree with Murdoch: aside from the Guardian and a couple of Labour MPs, no one took much notice of what was clear and systematic criminality on the part of one of our major newspapers. Only once the dead child appeared on the scene was our collective moral outrage provoked, and Tom Watson’s ‘dead horse’ became a scandal.

I have no idea if this is a new phenomenon or not. I rather suspect that even before the death of Princess Diana, our public morality was sentimentalised. But in an era of instant plebiscite by Twitter, judging a ‘crime’ on the basis of what we think of the ‘victim’ is both dangerous to justice and risks driving good men and women out of public life.

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One Response to A sentimental scandal

  1. I agree with you entirely on the notion of the principle overriding the nature of the victims here, and agree that the Dowler strand is something of an emotive digression from the central issue. The central issue extends way beyond media ethics to political economy and the general exercise and misuse of power and privilege and is hard to sum up in a soundbite. It’s much easier to use human interest angles and knee jerk approaches.

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