Tuesday 16 August 2011

The evolution of a weird super-story

We are building a scaffold for investigative journalism out of the Dowlers’ suffering

The phone-hacking scandal is supposed to have so outraged the public that the establishment has turned on itself. The elites of politics, the media business and the police have started stabbing each other (in the front) or falling on their swords like Roman patricians. Many may enjoy the spectacle; most people will largely ignore its intricacies. However, the phone-hacking scandal is not one thing; it is actually comprised of many scandals of different kinds all hitched together like a train of wobbly caravans that blocks the whole road.

This bigger story, the strange, overarching narrative that pulls all the threads of the various scandals together, is unfolding in a partly predictable process of who knew what (or who) when, extending into a distant horizon of public inquiries. But the meta-scandal of phone-hacking has been created very quickly under the perceived threat of public disgust, rather than the active demands of that public. Fear of really wide-ranging public scrutiny changes the behaviour of public figures and sends them scurrying around like ants who fear the blazing focal point of a magnifying glass being turned upon them.

As politicians try also to exploit the outrage, many assume that the public, already as distrustful of the press as of other institutions, has snapped at the latest revelations and cried ‘no more’. Some say people yearn for hard-hitting investigation that speaks truth to power, not puerile tabloid exposures. This cannot be the case.

This weird super-story does not stand up, even if it has prompted the most serious threat of reorganising journalistic practices by Parliament for generations. That MPs were seriously under pressure from a campaign fronted by Hugh Grant to reform the press demonstrates that they assumed that the British people have come to broadly agree with the actor. The process of meta-scandal building has now overtaken mere celebrity privacy to include the Metropolitan Police, big business and central government.

The tipping point, by which an ordinary collection of scandals has been transformed into the magnificent edifice of scandal being erected now, was the Guardian discovering murder victim Milly Dowler’s mobile number on a list of hacked phones. Relatives of soldiers killed in action were also apparently hacked and the potential internationalisation of the process follows the possibility of the hacking of victims of 9/11 and their relatives. It is the disgust at those particular events that has driven the whole super-scandal (and, incidentally, destroyed the leading role of the Guardian in the story).

It would seem inevitable that once the public became aware of the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile that there would necessarily be a backlash, but this cannot be the case. If upsetting the relatives of missing children with shockingly bad journalistic practices deserves the closure of a newspaper, all Fleet Street would have shut down a few years ago after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

It is not the nature of the techniques employed by tabloid journalists but the results of their use which really annoys ordinary people; while the public may be outraged at the effects upon the grieving Dowlers, they do not reach for their pitchforks when the same techniques reveal something that they wanted to know or something important that would otherwise have remained hidden from them. It is quite likely that hacked, stolen or leaked information will have a role to play in the further unfolding of the scandal. Perhaps the BBC or the Guardian will employ hacked material on hacking entirely without irony.

The big story we have accepted has a very strange aspect. In one way it completes a triptych of betrayals of the people: the greedy bankers destroying the economy; the MPs’ expenses scandal; and now the press, in cahoots with politicians, big business and the police misleading the courts and carelessly pursuing a morally reprehensible course of invasion of privacy and bribery. We are all supposed to be joining in the circle of condemnation and moral outrage, waving our pitchforks at a newly discovered monster in our midst.

But how, exactly, has the public become involved? The story that had groaned on for years about phone-hacking, alongside suspicions that its full extent had been covered up during the various inquiries into it, suddenly went somewhere else. A disparate range of issues were rolled up into one big bundle of scandal: The disquiet about the closeness of public figures to the unpopular Murdoch clan; the concerns about News International’s proposed takeover of BSkyB; the enmity of the BBC and the Guardian toward that company; and the perception that Rupert Murdoch wielded a foreign political influence through his newspapers and TV brands - all these threads have been twisted into a single rope of moral certainty.

When it emerged that the parents of a missing murder victim had had their phones hacked, the rather specialised, media-land narrative of the Guardian’s ongoing investigation was completely overtaken. The genuine disgust of the general public provided a base for a new, grander and more compelling narrative built from the amplified moral outrage of public figures. Until the emergence of these particularly shocking examples of journalistic intrusion, compounded by incompetent surveillance techniques that saw the Dowler family briefly finding new hope for their missing daughter, there was no one public scandal as such. These instances of intrusion, and no others, are the hooks upon which manufactured moral outrage was hung and from which a 168-year-old newspaper was hung out to dry by its advertisers (not Rupert Murdoch).

The big hole at the centre of this newly created meta-story is comprised of the many stories that relied on similar techniques and material that have conveniently been forgotten. This hole is the absence within the discussion of all the instances when illegal, intrusive, incompetent and morally reprehensible behaviour by journalism was ignored because of its beneficial results. Furthermore, when the press and media lost their way in the past, as with the McCann case, they blamed their errors on the pressure of satisfying their audiences. So the public becomes responsible, somehow, for the poor journalism it receives.

The expenses scandal, after the long-term efforts of investigative journalists to obtain freedom of information on MPs’ financial claims had failed in the courts, was first broken and then cynically drip-fed by the Telegraph. That newspaper had bought the information from a private investigator after he stole it and hawked it around Fleet Street. Nobody cared about a newspaper receiving stolen goods then as they didn’t care when the Guardian published (redacted) details of US Government material from WikiLeaks (even though the results were far less interesting in that case). The so-called Climategate scandal moved immediately on from the use of hacked of scientists’ email accounts into a totally different area and resulted in climate scientists usefully re-evaluating how they shared their work and findings with the public. The News of the World’s scoops on betting in cricket, the Duchess of York selling royal audiences and many others attracted little comment at the time on the various methods used of misrepresentation, entrapment and covert recording.

There are darker arts than those involving phone hacking and technological surveillance. The darkest of them is actually the oldest one. For reporters, the fostering of contacts within organisations or social settings and trying to turn them into informers in the public interest requires gaining the confidence of all kinds of people from police officers to murderers. A reporter may potentially have to huddle with almost anyone along any social axis, depending on the story. Such personal contacts have always been essential to reporting but today, through the great prism of an ersatz public outrage, they are actively under suspicion.

That former tabloid journalists can progress into political advisory roles is completely unsurprising. Imagine that you are a Tory politician or a senior police officer – or anyone in public life with little everyday experience - who else would you hire? This even happens at the local level. The closeness that can exist between journalists and their contacts is something only slightly less morally ambiguous than actual espionage. To some extent building contacts is bound to involve sleeping with the enemy (though not literally – you should make your excuses and leave in time-honoured fashion!). It is essential that reporters covering what happens get to know the people at the centre of events. They must gain their confidence so that they can objectively weigh up the veracity of information they may obtain through them. Sometimes, though, journalists move on from the news trade and just get into bed with former contacts (at least metaphorically).

We are building a scaffold for investigative journalism out of the empathy we have for the suffering of the parents of a murder victim. That suffering was indeed great but it does not compare with that of the McCanns. Kate McCann had her entire character, motherhood, morality, sexual history and her very sanity exposed to the most singularly puerile and forensic investigation by all the newspapers, every single one of them. The so-called quality press even conscripted the wildest-eyed nonsense from the blogosphere to pad out speculative coverage that lasted weeks and months.

That only the Express group was sued, as an example to the others, in no way diminishes the extent to which all on Fleet Street and elsewhere were guilty of the worst kind of journalistic speculation on the flimsiest of information. The press have collectively forgotten this whole episode, and are now quietly covering the low-key but ongoing investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance. We have been here before but the public didn’t demand the reformation of the press then and it does not now.

The public have perhaps forgotten how badly the media behaved, but they have still not forgotten Madeleine McCann. According to The Sunday Times bestsellers list, people have bought 214,885 copies of Kate McCann’s book, Madeleine, in the last nine weeks; the only other publication among the forty titles in the four top-ten lists to sell more copies is David Nicholls’ publishing phenomenon, the romantic comedy One Day.

The public is certainly angry but I question whether this has steered events. The association of Murdoch’s company with phone-hacking made it politically inexpedient for MPs to back his BSkyB takeover. There were various campaigns and petitions flying around by Facebook and email, exhorting people to contact their MPs that may have been given some impetus by the Dowler factor, but this is a secondary cause of the demise of the News of the World. The advertisers that doomed the paper were worried about the potential problems of association with something unpopular. Companies want to maintain good public relations. Simple commercial concerns are the plausible force behind the decision to stop advertising. No advertising meant there could be no newspaper; Rupert Murdoch was not really ruthless in this case. Rather, the actual public anger that exists has been internalised by public figures connected with aspects of the scandal and expressed as a focused moral imperative. The running away from the glare of increased public scrutiny, real or imagined, has created an out-of-control bandwagon on which politicians now hope to ride into Fleet Street and clean up.

The assumption that the closure of the News of the World represented some sort of victory for proper journalism over tabloid puerility is misplaced. The broadsheets have for years followed the tabloids around, picking up on their celebrity stories and repackaging them as quality, like dung beetles following the herd and processing the droppings into a more acceptable form. For example, the original inaccurate, sloppy and incompetent tabloid coverage of Max Mosley’s sexual exploits was coyly reproduced in all the qualities when they fastened on to the most puerile details of the court proceedings that followed. Mosley won his case at the cost of the tabloidesque expansion of the coverage across all Fleet Street.

Those who perceive a decline in investigative journalism are labouring under a misunderstanding. If anything, the investigative approach and all it entails has expanded to be applied to almost every kind of coverage, even of the most mundane kind. Especially at the national level of journalism, everything is investigated, but the process of the investigation now frequently lacks its old justification of acting on the suspicion of wrongdoing. This is because wrongdoing itself has become personalised and detached from an objective public interest.

Rather than a decline in investigation, it is the thoughtless expansion of it into all realms, particularly the personal that has led to a Fleet Street decline in the standards of its technique. At the national level, some reporters working for newspapers with financial clout had a way of quickly short-circuiting the tricky process of nurturing contacts by simply paying for information, or paying someone else to obtain information illegally. And the information they sought largely didn’t matter to the public. This is reprehensible but does not indicate the quality of the vast majority of investigative work still being carried out. Both the oldest techniques and the newest technology will certainly continue to be employed in real investigative journalism in one way or another and therefore will sometimes be abused. To try and counter the abuses of journalism’s dark arts with new codes, laws and industry regulations can only reduce the effectiveness of all investigative journalism of any kind.

The most absurd aspect of the phone-hacking super-scandal is that the very people, however imperfectly, who are supposed to democratise power in politics, business and criminal justice, those whose job it is to reign in excesses with public scrutiny, now face having their techniques and professional organisations being reformed and subsequently overseen by the very people they are supposed to hold to account. A new moral crusade against the privileges of journalism carried out in the public interest is well underway. Under the lords of the new church of responsible journalism, who watches the watchmen? Apparently, it will be the wretched elite moralists who are supposed to be the watched.

This article was originally written for Proofed.

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