Two cheers for tabloid trash

By Jack Shafer
November 30, 2011

Giving testimony yesterday at the Leveson phone-hacking inquiry (PDF) in London, former News of the World features editor Paul McMullan took the only position on the scandal not yet occupied: That of an unrepentant tabloid journalist.

Don’t blame tabloid excesses on tabloid journalists, McMullan held, as he blithely parried the panel’s questions about how he could justify the tabloid press’s phone-hacking practices, its surveillance of subjects, and other intrusions into people’s lives.

Blame tabloid readers, McMullan said.

“Circulation defines what is the public interest. I see no distinction between what the public is interested in and the public interest,” he said. “The reason why News of the World sold 5 million copies is that there were 5 million thinking people and that’s what they wanted to read.”

Continuing his blame-the-readers-not-me tack, he said, “[Readers] are the judge and the jury of what is in the paper, and if they don’t like it—if they don’t like the fact that you’ve written a story about Charlotte Church’s father having two-in-a-bed—sorry, three-in-a-bed on cocaine, then they’ll simply stop buying the product.”

Asked by Lord Justice Leveson if the ends justified the means, McMullan let his interrogator have it. “Yes, I think so,” he said. “All I’ve ever tried to do is write truthful articles and to use any means necessary to try and get to the truth.”

Although the Leveson committee was asking the questions and not giving the answers, it seemed stumped by McMullan’s intransigence, even when he offered that “Privacy is the space that bad people need to do bad things in. Privacy is particularly good for pedophiles. … It brings out the worst in people.”

Obviously, just because News of the World—which owner Rupert Murdoch closed this summer as the phone-hacking scandal crested—commanded 5 million paying customers can’t justify the serial law-breaking attributed to its journalists. But McMullan’s moxie temporarily moved the topic to an area of non-consensus: How grounded to reality are the privacy expectations of politicians, sports stars, celebrities, and civilians?

In a recent Journal of Media Law & Ethics (PDF) article about the Max Mosley case, scholar Stephen Bates notes that the British law only recently embraced privacy.

“A dozen years ago, British reporters were less vulnerable to invasion-of-privacy suits than American reporters. Today, British reporters are far more vulnerable. Indeed, privacy lawsuits are outnumbering libel ones,” Bates writes. “As a result, freedom of the press in Britain has been constricted.”

Bates, who is a lawyer, surmises that the news coverage lavished on adulterers Mark Sanford, John Ensign, John Edwards, and Tiger Woods would have given all four randy fellows standing to sue for invasion of privacy under British law.

Sounding a little like McMullan (but without justifying law-breaking or other tabloid excesses), Bates writes:

The press does more than help create informed, active citizens. It seeks not merely to serve the public interest; it also seeks to serve the public’s interests, including interest in celebrities and scandals. The news media entertain as well as inform, and they serve the working class—the principal audience of tabloids—as well as the middle and upper classes. Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol once wrote, “It is probable that as much mischief has been perpetrated upon the human race in the name of ‘the public interest’ as in the name of anything else.”

The appetite for scandal news, both here and in the U.K., is so insatiable that tabloid journalists are forever creating or “discovering” new celebrities whose peccadilloes—especially sexual ones—can be reported. How else to explain the rise of the Kardashians? This appetite has no automatic right to a meal but the healthy market for the “red top” tabs in the U.K. and their U.S. counterparts—Star and Us, TV shows like TMZ, and celebrity columns in every U.S. daily newspaper—confirms how mainstream and widespread the consumption of gossip is. McMullan is right: The demand so demonstrably creates the supply that it requires us to pause long enough to figure out why we so love anything approaching a scandal, even if the exposé doesn’t contribute to the “public interest.”

Who among us will turn down gossip, especially of a sexual nature, about classmates, officemates, casual acquaintances, Hollywood actors, politicians, and all the way up to complete strangers? Bates helps us understand when he quotes C. Edwin Baker: “Gossip is an essential means of communication.” We crave intimate details of others’ lives because they give us a sense of power over them; because the intimate details of others’ lives help us understand our own; because the intimate details of others’ lives give us social currency and social standing. “Scandal news, like literature, illuminates human nature,” Bates writes.

Again, none of this is meant to defend reporters who break the law. But as the Leveson inquiry vectors from investigating law-breaking toward invasion of privacy questions, the closer it comes to criminalizing journalism. Most celebrity actors and musicians employ publicists to cultivate press for them, seeking, as Bates puts it, “positive publicity for their private lives,” as he approvingly quotes this passage from a 2009 legal case: “As there should be ‘truth in advertising,’ so there should be truth in publicity. The public should not be misled.”

If the Leveson inquiry ends up inspiring new, tougher privacy laws in the U.K., celebrities might sleep better. But so will U.K. government and corporate officials, and that’s not good. I encourage you to read the Bates article, not just because it’s learned and wise, but because it summarizes the issues in its kicker by quoting this splendid passage from Tom Stoppard:

“Junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins.”

******

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5 comments

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(quote) “… if the ends justified the means, McMullan let his interrogator have it. “Yes, I think so,””

like asking a parasite if it regrets killing its host

the man is an amoral parasite

no, parasites have a purpose …..

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

There’s a part of me that wants to believe you’re wrong: that wants to believe there’s some set of rules that can be applied, in a decent society, to divide reliably between “responsible” and “irresponsible” journalism. Clearly, some of the stories under discussion at the Leveson inquiry fall far into the “irresponsible” side of the spectrum.

On the other hand, without giving much thought to the matter, there’s another part of me that thinks that whatever rules we invent to regulate journalism, there will always be some exception…

My conclusion? Invent the rules. Make the laws. And then let the journalists justify themselves when they overstep the mark, just like the rest of us often have to do so, when we technically break any laws (even if our reason for doing so is very good).

What ever happened to,
“Do as you would be done by”?
I just wonder how long it would take McMullan to change his mind if HE was subjected to the kind of illegal surveillance and lewd publicity that we’ve been learning about recently.

You certainly err too far toward defending the British tabloids, if you think they have the right to secretly take pictures up the skirts of middle-teenage celebrities using hidden cameras in bushes in their gardens at home (no exaggeration) and publish those pictures in the morning papers. A representation of “truth”? Perhaps. But not the sort of “truth” anyone needs…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

My point (in brief) is, if government officials need a legal Sword of Damocles hanging over them to keep them in the strait and narrow; then surely (as amply evidenced in this inquiry), the journalists need their own.

My only concern here (in keeping with yours, Mr. Shafer) is that we should not enact such a broad body of law as to enable officials, police and prosecutors to persecute anyone they please, by selectively applying the law. Any new laws must not invest too much power in any one officer of the law, or in any group…

It’s a fine balance indeed…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

In the UK we certainly need greater diversity of ownership. We allowed too powerful a position to the Murdochs. They still have too powerful a position.

That way journalists who break the law can be brought to book.

But when the police and journalists link together ina corrupt embrace? Who will take on our corrupt police?

What we need is someone showing journalists in the same sort of harsh light they show others.

Leveson looks like he will achieve that. If he can do anything else useful is doubtful. And how long the public will remember the cost of reading such trash is another matter altogether.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

Maybe of interest regarding the insatiable appetite
for tabloid news:
For instance an OECD study into the circulation numbers
which found: “… that UK circulation has fallen by 25% between 2007-09, second only to the US, where the decline was 30%. …”
That was well before the hacking scandal blew up.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jun  /17/newspaper-circulation-oecd-report

Following the closure of NoTW in the UK, a recently
look into newspaper readership in the UK showed the
the following:
“… total net readership of national Sunday newspapers fell from 19,221,000 to 15,859,000, a 17% decline of 3,362,000. …”
” ….it appears that many of the 4.3m solo readers of NoW have dropped out of the market altogether. …”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greensla de/2011/nov/25/newsoftheworld-national-n ewspapers

In other words, it looks like that the newspaper
crisis is making some serious progress. One just has
to use the search words “newspaper layoffs” to see
what it is happening.

Posted by Joss | Report as abusive