13 July 2011

News of the Screwed

Power - pop!

Read about the things that happen throughout the world
Don't believe in everything you see or hear
The neighbours talk day in day out about the goings on
They tell us what they want - they don't give an inch

Look at the pictures taken by the cameras they cannot lie
The truth is in what you see - not what you read
Little men tapping things out - points of view
Remember their views are not the gospel truth

Don't believe it all
Find out for yourself
Check before you spread
News of the world

Never doubt
Never ask
Never moan
Never search
Never find
Never know

Each morning our key to the world comes through the door
More than often its just a comic, not much more
Don't take it too serious - not many do
Read between the lines and you'll find the truth

Read all about it, read all about it - news of the world, news of the world
Read all about it, read all about it, read all about it - news of the world

- The Jam News of the World
Culture warriors of the right should be made of sterner stuff than to complain that lefties are onto them over the British News Ltd privacy invasion scandal. No conservative case can be made for the invasion of privacy perpetrated by News of the World and its sty-mates: it lived in the gutter and it died there.

Defenders of News of the World claimed that its antics were indispensible because one day it might uncover a real story one day, and it would need to draw on some great reservoir of profit and public goodwill to get through. Well, it had 168 years and the most it could come up with were:
  • A footballer having sex with women to whom he was not married;
  • Inside accounts of brothels for the benefit of those lacking the guts to go there themselves, and lacking any empathy for those who work in such places;
  • Medical details for a very ill infant whose father happened to be a prominent politician;
  • Tittle-tattle generally; and
  • That's about it really.
Those are the sorts of things that defenders of News of the World call "the big stories". They're not big stories; they are very, very petty indeed. Real conservatives rail against these things being aired in the public domain, and despair that such nonsense drives out informing, edifying and inspiring news that almost all hacks can't be bothered finding, let alone writing about. This would explain why public support for that newspaper has collapsed so quickly. It reminded me of the way Gatsby's social whirl collapses after the dead girl is found on his premises: one minute he's the King of West Egg and has Daisy within reach, the next minute he's a pariah.

If a government of a democratic-capitalist country set out to ban an investigative media outlet, or something genuinely popular, there would be public outcry and politicians would either back down or relent to some extent. News of the World was one of the biggest-selling newspapers in the western world, yet its only defence comes from those who worked were employed there. Let us have no more of this hypocrisy - I'll get to Christopher Hitchens shortly - that the closure of a factory or a shop is just another story but the closure of a newspaper is somehow a particularly poignant disaster.

I won't blame Hitchens for the headline in his piece but it is indicative of a contempt for readers found in the journosphere. Animals lap things up. No good journalism ever comes from those who mock the meat on which they feed, or who mock those who consume their output.

The reality of the scandals coming out of the Murdoch UK operation is clearly too noisome for one who has so long relied on it for sustenance. Were any other corporation in any other industry to be found to be some ethically retarded as News International, Christopher Hitchens would be first among those to call for it to be shut down. Instead, Hitchens seeks sanctuary in literature.
First, the sad news of human frailty was not bugled with lurid and sensational tactics. It was laid out more in sorrow than in anger, published on a Sabbath day that was still full of legal and moral force, and strove to show how easy was the fall from grace. Second, and in keeping, its reporters and editors took a very high moral tone. They would take the investigation of a brothel, say, only so far.

Once a certain point of complicity had been reached, there would appear a phrase that became celebrated both in print and in court. "At this stage," the reporter would solemnly intone, "I made an excuse and left."

This degree of detachment was thought essential to the proper conduct of business.

Hand it to Rupert Murdoch and his minions: They got hold of the solid old "News of the Screws" or "Nudes of the World" and made it into a paper where the question was not how low can human nature sink, but rather is there anything, however depraved, a reporter cannot be induced to do?
That depravity meant that it had nowhere to go when the public turned against them. The speed with which it was shut down showed the degree to which people were played for suckers: let to run, then reeled in, as editorial whim required.

Hitchens then flees back into literature, only to lunge out at his readers: "Yes, dear reader, you are a hypocrite, too". Even when I was in London I never bought a copy, I never read its website, so he clearly can't include me. When I hear or see the kind of thing that was its stock in trade I feel no surprise, and I doubt there is much correlation between its advertisements and my consumption habits. Can you imagine Sebastian Flyte or George Orwell accepting an invitation to a focus group for News of the World? It was always big on hypocrisy, but it lacked (and its former employee Hitchens is still lacking) both self-awareness and any real engagement with its audience necessary to assess its readership and meet their needs.

Then, he tries his hand at populism, having seen the master at work:
When reporters speak so easily of the great influence exerted on politicians by Murdoch's papers, what they really mean is by Murdoch's readers. His only real knack lies in knowing what they want.
This assumes, falsely, a link between the meeting of said wants and the ability to mobilise readers to meet the interests of the proprietor. News of the World should have been wound down slowly, were it truly an instrument of great power, not snuffed out like a candle once the electric lights were switched on.
The most neglected aspect of the entire imbroglio is this. Most of the allegations of shady practice against the Murdoch octopus have come from another newspaper.
True enough: one of the last newspapers that engages in investigative journalism, The Guardian, has the credibility to rally the public in a way that News of the World never could (and before you think this is some sort of paean to the left, consider that the UK Telegraph has an equivalent reputation for its stories on parliamentary expenses and articles like this).
Over the same period, Rusbridger and The Guardian formed the London end of the media consortium that tried to impose some element of sorting and priority on the mess that WikiLeaks had become.
Here Hitchens lapses back into piffle.

The journalists at the UK Telegraph had the good sense and humility to put all their documentation online and trust readers to help them build the story. Issues requiring detailed knowledge of accounting practice and the rules of claimable expenses was entrusted to informed and engaged readers, and they came through: this is twentyfirst century journalism at its most promising. By contrast, those at the Guardian, The New York Times and Australia's Fairfax are engaged in old-school gatekeeper journalism where lawyers and ad-sales dollies will decide what stories see the light of day, and journalists will simply transcribe them rather than explain. Journalists had nothing to do with Wikileaks: all the data simply fell into their laps, and much of the way they report it shows an insistence on presenting stories as tittle-tattle: what politician A said about politician B, etc.
... a lot hangs on the outcome of the battle between the Murdochian and Guardian world views.
Indeed it does, but not for the dialectical reasons Hitchens might imagine.

Firstly, illegal intrusions into privacy will continue. The knee-jerk response to September 11 has normalised intrusions of that sort. Government agencies do it but they offer the impression of security, far more defensible than insubstantial tittle-tattle. Big companies breach their customers' privacy inadvertently, as happened to Sony recently, and they look like idiots - but News' sins are those of commission, not omission.

Murdoch attempted to hide behind the public that had sustained him, that he felt egged him on in pursuit of tittle-tattle (a bit like some pathetic rapist you'd read about in a Murdoch tabloid, repeatedly bleating "she wanted it" in the face of all evidence going against him). When he elevated titillation to a right on par with accountable government, when he lost perspective on his prurient content, the public that had long indulged him simply abandoned him. Something similar happens to politicians: they can wear enormous popularity like armour, but when it falls away they are left with the deals and the compromises they made in their pomp, when they were riding high and everything they did or said was always "canny".

Secondly, in Australia and elsewhere the exposure of activities of this sort is most likely not from other journalists, but from IT professionals who can play all the games that Murdoch's people did but better, and with the sense and skill to expose them in a way that gives people some understanding of what is going on. Imagine trying to explain to Australian journalists about mobile phone security settings or accessing medical files remotely ("yeah, but did you read what Bolt said about Swanny? I'm trying to get a right of reply. It's the story of the day - everyone's running with it, it's a highly competitive media market you know").

The failure of bad journalism will not necessarily create more space for good. What is most likely is that editors will stuff the vacant space with dull stuff. It is more than possible that some good journalism will suffer collateral damage in all this. What this means is a distancing of journalism from politics: hopefully it will mean a greater appreciation that public and corporate policy includes decisions that aren't made by executive government.

The only journalism that will survive will not be insider goss but robustly independent investigation that knows source documents when it sees them, and how to fit it with a wider story. No amount of shrieking about "proper media outlets" will arrest this, and the shriekers probably know it (though it's hard to be sure without hacking their phones - yes, your colleagues overseas should have considered you Caroline before dragging the whole outfit through the gutter). The celebration of human frailty to which News of the World has no future: on TMZ amateurs will freely film, say, Lindsay Lohan's slow-motion suicide more graphically and pitilessly than Murdoch's complacent apparatus ever could describe it. Political insider journalism, where "favourable coverage" simply jars with a badly-served public, has no value and no future.

In Australia Murdoch owns 70% of the newspapers, yet if they had any clout at all John Howard would still be Prime Minister. In the US, Murdoch has invested billions in rightwing politics - not only in Fox, but in the vast exercise in astroturfing known as the Tea Party. Murdoch has hired almost all viable Republican candidates for President - and yet the most viable, popular and credible is the candidate who needs him least, Mitt Romney. In the UK Murdoch turning on a government followed public opinion rather than having led it.

Non-Murdoch journalism is starting, here and there, to light out for the territories of what people today need from journalism. In areas other than politics and science (IT, say), areas far from micromanaged editorial scrutiny, there are aberrant and occasional pockets of suitability in News Ltd output. The insecurity of the political class - and not just in the UK - in thrall to moguls as a substitute for a lack of community engagement is well made by The Piping Shrike. The lack of any substantial and lasting engagement by traditional media and politics with the public is ultimately their problem, not ours.


  1. Very impressed! Great to read the writings of someone who's managed to get disillusioned enough with everyone to write about things clearly and crisply and in depth. I'll check out some of your other stories too. Well done.
    By the way, I have a Hitchens quote on my blog cover but that has nothing to do with his politics, but with our medical conditions!

  2. A question that remains unanswered is why Murdoch is so steadfastly standing by Rebekah Brooks.

    One theory has it that she perhaps more than anyone else knows where the bodies are buried and thus he can't afford - politically or financially - to alienate her.

    Another is that he needs to hold someone back to throw to the wolves at the very last moment if they really do come to his back door, and she would be a particularly juicy prize for said wolves.

    This whole saga has a long way to run yet...

  3. and now, just as I have written that, Murdoch has withdrawn News' bid for BSkyB. Woooo!

  4. Hillbilly Skeleton14/7/11 9:03 am

    To restore your faith in good quality journalism in the UK beyond the purview of The Guardian, and way beyond Christopher Hitchens pompous blathering, have a read of Roy Greenslade's take on Murdoch's 'Citizen Kane' moment:

  5. If Rupe doesn't stand by Rebekkah, he won't have much of a management team left. Nobody will work for him. Further, she is the last bulkhead between him and this whole mess. So until it looks like the bulkhead is about to give way, he's got to keep her. After that, he'll jump into his escape pod and head for a small island somewhere in the carribean

  6. I lol'd when I saw Media Diary doesn't accept reader comments. Obviously there's a reason for that...

  7. Denis: thank you, and all the best in evicting yr unwelcome guest.

    Anon1: watch his loyal retainers rush the exits if he drops her.

    Thank you Neha and Anon2.

    HS: Greenslade is a Guardian blogger, one of the ones to watch closely.

    Chade: she can dish it out but can't cop it back. Her very weird exchange with George Newhouse in 2007 shows she's a bit of a bunny-boiler if you get on the wrong side of her, and News Ltd obviously don't want to pay to put her back together yet again.