July 15 (Bloomberg) -- First the due diligence: I have a contract with News International, the British branch of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. I’ve worked for the Sunday Times for nearly 20 years.
I also have contracts with Conde Nast, National Magazine Corp., Australian Gourmet Traveller and, as you can see, Bloomberg News. In the spirit of free and frank disclosure, I should add that I’m white, 57, male, twice divorced, with four children. I’m dyslexic, a recovering alcoholic and have a hernia. Too much information yet?
When is enough enough? It seems we in London just found out. Phone hacking the messages of a teenage murder victim was more than enough. Hiring a private detective to do so sank Europe’s largest-selling newspaper, the News of the World, with all 200 hands. It also sank Murdoch’s plan to gain full ownership of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc. And it raised a great deal of very sticky mud.
The U.K.’s tabloid culture tends to fascinate, disgust and surprise Americans. How can a nation that sounds so refined on TV talk such filth in print?
Part of this stems from the fundamentally different ways that British and American journalists view themselves and their jobs. The Americans tend to see themselves as men of letters; they belong to a profession. We consider ourselves hacks who do a trade. The tabloid stock of sex, football, scandal, innuendo, bullying, humor and sex has a long and venerable, if not illustrious, heritage in Britain.
Staccato of Outrage
The reaction to the News scandal from the politicians and the competing broadsheet papers has been staccato and sustained, the outrage both hysterical and laughable. But then, righteous outrage is the defining tone in emotion of all English journalism, be it the tabloids’ seedy exposes or the broadsheets’ high ground moralizing. Everybody is outraged all the time, and whenever they decided it was safe to jump in, the politicians were more shrilly outraged than everyone else.
Now that pretty much everyone has vented, let’s take a moment to stand back, catch our breath and remember that nobody comes to this outrage roast without their own special-interest dipping sauce.
The broadsheet papers the Guardian and the Independent are losing fortunes and readers. They are terrified of a price war with News International, particularly if it had access to the cash stream of the Sky operation.
Politicians don’t need much of an excuse to blame the press for their personal losses, woes and shortcomings. Both major parties see their opponents’ past coziness to Murdoch and his top editors as a stick to beat each other with.
Red Top Press
And let’s face it, given the opportunity, everyone’s happy blaming the messenger for the message. The “red top press” -- the tabloids -- are particularly open to a moral patrician attack. They have, after all, accumulated enough victims, and offered enough grievances. There are plenty who live in fear of their prying and have good reason to; they make few friends, and the ones they have tend to be the powerless and silent.
There are many more who find tabloid prurience simply embarrassing and unworthy of a civilized society. Like the woman at dinner the other night who leaned across and said to me: “Newspapers should improve their readers, not pander to their baser selves. Owners ought to seek to improve the world.”
That is a fair if haughty approximation of what plenty of folk who know a thing or two, including many broadsheet hacks, think about tabloid journalism. It is the pious declaration of the missionary who tells the natives to make their wives wear brassieres.
A Moral Arbiter
Over and over we are assured that the public interest is not necessarily what interests the public. That’s a neatly trite and clubbable aphorism. But few bother to ask the follow-up journalistic question: Why can’t the public decide what is in its interest? And if not them, who? Who should be the moral arbiter on behalf of the great unwashed, as to what it’s nice for them to know? What is improving and uplifting, and not merely frivolous and filthy?
The argument between broadsheet and tabloid, hack and homme de lettres, is the wrong row. The press is indivisible. There isn’t naughty and nice, good or bad, ours and theirs. It is all part of the great flow of information, ideas and observations, all of it the basis of democracy. High needs low, rough needs smooth.
A newspaper’s competition isn’t other papers -- it’s no papers. Just as the opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference, the opposite of tabloid journalism isn’t broadsheet journalism, it’s the indifference of great swathes of the population. The 7 million readers of the News of the World aren’t going to join the 100,000 readers of the Independent on Sunday. They won’t read a paper at all.
Preaching Squishy Truisms
Unless we want a press that does nothing but preach comforting truisms to the educated, squeamish and knowing, then journalists need to realize that we work for all of the press, not just the bit that has linen napkins. The men of letters need to find their inner hack, and the hacks need to use fewer exclamation points.
As we now hear renewed calls in Britain for stricter policing and restriction of the press, it’s perhaps germane to note two things. Many of the great exposes and stories that improve our lives and hold the powerful to account start with a technical illegality or a dubious act -- the Pentagon Papers, WikiLeaks, the 2009 expenses scandal at Westminster.
The second point is that the News of the World phone-hacking story wasn’t started by politicians, it wasn’t pressed by the police, it didn’t arise from a great public outcry. It was prosecuted relentlessly by a free press. As the paper tigers grow rarer and their habitat more endangered, they turn and kill each other.
(A.A. Gill, the restaurant and TV critic of the Sunday Times of London, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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