Press, police, politicians and public in race to the bottom

June 19, 2012

–Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School. The opinions expressed are his own.–

Listening to the interminable Leveson Inquiry hearings, it is impossible not to feel revulsion at some of the antics of the hacks. How could anyone be heartless enough to hack into the phone of a murder victim, let alone to tamper with the voice messages she left behind? How could they invent stories to try to incriminate parents who have been through the nightmare that the McCanns have faced since their toddler disappeared? And, having behaved with such heartlessness, how could they present the stories they invented in such a self-righteous tone? There is nothing the tabloids like more than posing as crusaders for decency in a wicked world, yet their own behaviour was beneath contempt.

At the same time, however, you also have to ask why the press feel the urge to sink so low in the first place. Why are they willing to go to such lengths as to hack into the phone conversations of the Dowlers or the McCanns, or indeed of genuine celebs?

Clearly, newspaper editors know their own business. Their years of experience in the industry tell them that this is the kind of invasive reporting people will pay to read. Like drug dealers or pimps, they satisfy a demand which they have not created, an inexhaustible thirst for stories replete with prurient detail. They have no need to force their products on anyone because we, the Great British Public, are simply gagging for it. The truth is that the tabloids hold up a daily mirror to the hypocrisy of their readers.

In this respect, we have to take the whining of the print media barons seriously – restrictions on the newspapers will only further tilt the playing field in favour of the anything-goes internet, as we saw in the case of the Ryan Giggs superinjunction.

However, once we look beyond our immediate revulsion, there is an important distinction to be made between those who have chosen to live in the public eye and those who have not.

On the one hand, celebs and politicians mostly take care to cultivate a symbiotic relationship with the press, so they can hardly expect to get away with happily feeding the animals day after day without every so often getting their fingers bitten. It is quite enough that in the British courts they have recourse to the most oppressive libel laws in the world.

But it is another thing altogether when the target is ordinary folk, catapulted randomly into the media spotlight by personal tragedy, as were the Dowlers, Christopher Jefferies and many others. They have entered into no Faustian bargain with the media, they have no experience of dealing with the sudden attention, and in many cases they have access neither to professional PR advisers nor to the courts when they are targets of the sort of vicious lies that the press feel free to spread.

Ideally, we need a regulatory framework which distinguishes far more robustly between, on the one hand, people who have never chosen to live their lives in the glare of publicity, and on the other, politicians and celebs who simply want to see the industry remade in the image of Hello! Magazine. As far as ordinary folk are concerned, we need safeguards, court orders and compensation where appropriate, but celebs and politicians should, if anything, be given far less protection than they have today.

During the Leveson Inquiry and even more during the often ridiculous select committee hearings, there were some moments which felt like one of those Third World insurrections, when you know all too well that the insurgents will immediately set about installing an equally oppressive regime of their own. The tone of Labour MP Tom Watson’s questioning of James Murdoch was ominous in that regard, and his cavalier use of the word “mafia” — one of those words that are bandied about far, far too freely nowadays – only raised the question of whether he is actually a fit and proper person to sit in the House of Commons.

All of which is very bad news indeed, given that we have had disturbing confirmation in the last few months of the corrupt relationship between the press and the police as well as politicians. The former appears to have involved cosy arrangements between equals, while the latter was clearly more like a clientele relationship, potentially even more damaging to democracy. The Leveson Inquiry is at least a serious attempt to address some of the issues, whereas some of the shenanigans in the select committee gave me the sort of feeling I get watching Stoke City play Everton – I only wish there were some way both sides could lose.

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