Thursday, 7 July 2011

News of the World: Why It's Your Fault

You may have noticed that there's a massive campaign afoot to make corporations drop their advertising in the News of the World.

OK, so far so bad. The newspaper has illegally accessed the telephones of politicians, entertainers, a murdered teenager, murdered kids' parents, terrorism victims' friends and families and dead soldiers' families.

But we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that these advertisers (and the Royal British Legion, which has just dropped its 'relationship' with the paper) are in any way better than the News of the World. These allegations have been public knowledge, to some extent, for several years. More widely, the News of the World, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express and other papers have been using illegal methods to gather information for decades. You can spot the guilty papers by their lack of coverage of this story over recent years.

Basically: the advertisers know what newspapers do. They've forked over millions of pounds to tabloids which explicitly specialise in vicious, bitter, moralistic, hypocritical, prurient, titillating gossip for decades. To suddenly decide that they can't (temporarily) stand it any longer isn't a sign that these companies exist on a higher moral plane than the papers. For all their handwringing ('I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here'), they don't have moral values. They have accountants, and they have PR departments, who are both telling them that the outrage dollar (as Bill Hicks would have it) is more lucrative than the News of the World dollar, for now.

Which brings me to my final point. Why do major corporations advertise in the News of the World? Because it's the best-selling Sunday newspaper in the UK. Why is it the best-selling newspaper in the UK? Because millions of otherwise un-evil citizens make a deliberate choice of a Sunday to read vicious, bitter, moralistic, hypocritical, prurient, titillating gossip. Sure, individuals aren't responsible for the cultural soup in which they swim, but you have a choice. You could decide that the sex lives of TV weather presenters, Bolton's second-string fullback, and Big Brother losers simply isn't news, or relevant to you. You could decide that if you really must leer over the breasts of a teenage girl, to have some guts and buy an actual porn mag, or head to the internet, where I'm told flesh is easily found. You could stop dialling the sex-lines which fill the back pages. You could make a resolution to avoid the shrieking racism which pervades these repulsive papers.

And if you're reading this smugly congratulating yourself for not being a News of the World reader, you can wipe that smile off your face, particularly if you have a Sky subscription. 'Oh', you might be whinging, 'I've no choice. I love Boardwalk Empire, and big movies, and live sport, Vole, how can I live without live sport?'. Tough. They're all just commodities, sticky open jam pots designed to suck you in and sell you to advertisers - despite the fact that you've paid a subscription too. If you like films, go to the cinema or even better, the theatre, and make an occasion of it. Read a book. Sports fans: go to a live match, or play in one. Every penny you give to News International or one of its competitors - because blaming NI alone is to deny that there's a structural political, economic and cultural problem - you don't just fund what you're watching. You reward the News of the World and its friends. Ironically, paying to watch your favourite footballer perform involves paying for the 'celebrity news' which has replaced actual news, and funds the hacking, telephoto lens, kiss-and-tells and all the other paraphernalia which will be turned on that very footballer if a media outlet senses sales in the offing.

This isn't new: here's an extract from George Orwell's 1946 The Decline of the English Murder:

It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
Naturally, about a murder.
With all this in mind one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader's point of view, the "perfect" murder. The murderer should be a little man of the professional class — a dentist or a solicitor, say — living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience. Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison. In the last analysis he should commit murder because this seems to him less disgraceful, and less damaging to his career, than being detected in adultery. With this kind of background, a crime can have dramatic and even tragic qualities which make it memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer. 

So when anyone wonders out loud whose fault it is, you can tell them: it's your fault. You buy the papers. You accept that celebrity gossip is news. You somehow have a definite opinion on who killed Maddie McCann. You let the tabloids define the terms for debates on anything from immigration to public sector pensions. The word you're looking for is 'complicit'.

Who hacked those phones? You did.

(And as an aside: given this week's events, I hope all you snobs will now revise your opinions about media studies).


Lee said...

Are you after Johann Hari's job?

The Plashing Vole said...

Yes. And I'd do better than him, because I can spot plagiarism a mile off.

Adam said...

I'm finding it hard to care about phone "hacking" (as a techie myself I know this isn't actually hacking, if you leave your voicemail unprotected then absolutely anyone could get into it, armed only with your mobile number). I think it's no surprise that reporters use underhand and despicable tactics to get stories, and it's not just Murdoch's lot who are guilty, other papers have done it. There is a delicious irony in the Moral Panic being used against one of Murdoch's papers, but at the end of the day it is just a Moral Panic and I won't be manipulated.

The Plashing Vole said...

That's a fair position.
Except: it's not a moral panic for me. It's the chance to strike a very expensive blow against Murdoch. I really hope it's the Daily Mail next.