Watching this week's Leveson enquiry into Media Ethics this week, I was fondly casting my mind back to the rather brilliant summer we had. It's a little hard to recall today, coming as it did before the dismal days of Eurozone crisis, Greek default, London riots and the latest John Lewis commercial, but there was an exhilarating two week period when the News of the World was in its death throes. Every day something worse would emerge, and another previously untouchable News International employee would be defenestrated with indecent haste. In that Schadenfreude fortnight, when it became clear that the Police's reluctance to investigate the phone hacking scandal had less to do with incompetence and rather more with complicity, we were forced to ask ourselves some big questions, such as "who polices the police when they're in the media's pocket?"
Watching this week's coverage, I was asking myself a not dissimilar question: who reports on the reporters? You too can watch the coverage live online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi but if you do, you may notice a bit of a disconnect between what you can see and what you can read about it afterwards. For as the phone hacking allegations spread beyond News International, the popular press coverage of events has vacillated between simply ignoring them to shrilly denouncing the participants with the sort of crude ad hominem arguments that would embarrass a guest on the Jeremy Kyle show.
The Sun has mainly chosen the former approach: the heart-breaking testimony of Milly Dowler's parents was relegated to a single paragraph on page 6. The Daily Mail has chosen to go on the attack, getting its proverbial testicles caught in the mangle over Hugh Grant's reasonable assumptions about its source for a story (his full testimony is here). The moral personal failings of both Grant and, latterly, Steve Coogan (who testified today) apparently remove from them the rights of privacy and free speech that the press so happily enjoy and abuse. Inevitably today the same old arguments were wheeled out in defence of British tabloid journalism, and will be every time someone has the temerity to complain of an intrusion, here neatly summarised by Sarah Sands in today's London Evening Standard:
"Celebrities participate in an over-the-counter trade when they have a product to sell but otherwise their lives are none of anyone else's business".
You must read the above sentence in your most withering, irony-dripping voice. Once you've done so, you may find yourself agreeing there is a certain hypocrisy in currying favour with an editor one day and spurning him when it has become inconvenient. This opinion is probably tacitly held by a reasonably large percentage of the population - probably those who seek self-justification for fuelling the activity through their daily purchase of a tabloid paper. I make this assumption on the grounds that the initial phone hacking story failed to really ignite until the catalyst of Milly Dowler's voicemail hacking by News of the World. It took intrusion into the life of the an ordinary victim of crime to set off the furious indignation of the British public. In other words, celebs were, if not exactly fair game, then not much worthy of our sympathy either.
I find Sands' argument both baffling and horrifying in its implications. It is, in effect, a reworking of the vile rapist's defence of "she was asking for it". The celebrity here has aroused the interest of the press and must suffering the consequences, no matter how far they go. And if the celebrity has, in the past, courted publicity from the press for a project or piece of work, then it's an open and shut case: a metaphorical flirtation with a showbiz reporter is an invitation to a fully invasive assault any time the press feels like it. It's part of the price of being who you are, and you love it really. Sands here is portraying the media as the helpless victim, as though they are forced to give a rising star publicity in their papers; the reduction of people's privacy to a transaction is very much the prerogative of the paper, not the other way around as Sands would have us believe.
There's something peculiarly British about this attitude that explains why the tabloid press gets away with so much. Foreigners encountering UK tabloid reporting for the first time are often shocked by its intrusion because they have heard of something called the Great British Reserve. This means an overbearing deference to people's privacy in everyday life. Contrast how open someone from, say, the USA will be upon first meeting or moving into a new neighbourhood with the UK, where the time getting to know new neighbours can be measured in ice ages. So how does the press get away with it?
It's because the Great British Reserve is trumped by something even greater, called Not Getting Above Yourself. Success in the UK is both celebrated and despised, and for every Lily Allen there's a Julie Burchill ready to knock them down a peg or two. This is the role the tabloid press performs and I'm sure there are sections of it who genuinely believe that, by reporting on Steve Coogan's latest affair, they are performing some kind of public service - as do, no doubt, those who read it.
There's a deep-seated psychological flaw in this attitude that is very ugly. The passive-aggressive sneer of every Liz Jones hatchet-job in the Daily Mail suggests that somehow these celebrities are getting away with something. How dare they enjoy the trappings of fame with no downside. The idea that long-lensed paparazzos are an important counterweight to the excess of celebrity, in the same way investigative journalists are to Executive power, is as unquestioned as it is laughable. Press reporting of Leveson is truly the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the mirror. Or, in this case, the Daily Mail.