As the Guardian
works hard to keep the News of the World
phone-hacking ball in the air, some persistent vuvuzelas
can be heard from the crowd: “These allegations are old. They didn’t lead anywhere when they were made the first time. The allegations don’t matter anyway, because all the tabloids have their own dark arts. And without those, we would never uncover public scandals.”
The allegations aren’t that old, for a start. Watching people try to dismiss the current ruckus as old news vividly reminds me of people declaiming that they are “tired of all the banker bashing” and it has to stop, when only a moment’s reflection allows you to realise that, either figuratively or literally, not a single banker has actually been bashed
. Rhetoric, column inches and conversations in pubs are not, it turns out, legally binding, and no government has actually moved against the reckless banks operating on its turf. You might think that merely having people bitch about the havoc that you’ve wrought was a pretty light sentence, but no, apparently it’s time to stop even that.
Scratch an anti-banker-basher and underneath you’ll usually find a vested interest—a good friend, relative or business associate of just such a financial wizard. The same applies to the phone-hacking story. The current government is inextricably bound
to the scandal due to Cameron’s decision to make Andy Coulson his Alastair Campbell, so, however unfairly, whichever ministers it fields to try to airily dismiss the allegations already look tainted before they even open their mouths.
And they should probably beware of too heavily pursuing the line that the allegations were never proved at the time. That’s one of the aspects of the story that is raising so many awkward questions
now—why the Met’s approach to the investigation appears to have been so lacklustre—so emphasising it as a reason to dismiss the whole thing appears, at best, daft and, at worst, complicit.
One evening in Norway my sister rustled us up a quick meal. She boiled some chicken, but I found that the middle was still raw and was swift
to mention this. “It’s all right,” she said, “you’re not in Britain now.” I gather I looked puzzled. “We don’t have salmonella here,” she explained patiently. She was right, too: in Norway, raw chicken and, if you must, raw egg have no ill effects whatsoever (apart from those that a raw egg might induce anyway).
My first reaction was, “Why on earth haven’t your chickens got salmonella?” My second reaction was, “Wait, why was that my first reaction? Shouldn’t it be Why have all of ours
?” It’s possible to become so acclimatised to a situation that you don’t question it until shown that there’s an alternative and that you might just
have gone astray. The tabloids’ “dark arts”, including phone-hacking and other private-eye methods, are applied indiscriminately to any and all news fodder, and there is no reason for this to be tolerated. The only people who should be expected not to recoil from these practices are those in the press who directly benefit from them and playground cynics who pre-emptively disdain everything about the society around them before it can disdain them, the latter group essentially acting as stooges for the former.
There might be more weight to the argument that important investigative journalism needs precisely such dark arts as these in order to expose corruption if there were any sign of this happening
. The last major exposé of shenanigans at the top was the Telegraph
’s publication of all the MPs’ expenses, and that only happened because a man rang them up and told them he had a list of all the MPs’ expenses. No-one has been monitoring phone messages for a noble cause; no budding Woodward or Bernstein would be hindered if that were suddenly made impossible. Investigative journalism has been almost completely subsumed into the industry of celebrity non-news. Which is more likely: that right now a newspaper is beavering behind the scenes, digging around among arcane documents and sources, trying to untangle networks of sly patronage and subtle illegality at the heart of the worlds of business and government, or that a team of reporters is burning up resources on a relentless, manic quest to discover the current consistency of Kerry Katona’s stomach lining?
There may not be an awful lot that we can do to persuade editors and journalists not to work like this—after all, they’ve got columns to fill
, as if in itself that was ever an excuse for anything—but that doesn’t mean that we ever have to be tolerant of it. Our weary acceptance
of these antics will only help to do the press’s dirty work for them.