The phone hacking scandal seems to be reaching its climax now. It is expected that both the government and the opposition will attempt to show themselves as having moved as far away from Murdoch as possible in order to save some face, despite their amicable past relations with the media. The true extent of the hacking is unknown and what we have seen so far may simply be the tip of a massive, sensationalist iceberg which is far too cold to serve the “public interest.”
The repetition of this phrase, “the public interest”, throughout the debates surrounding the scandal seems hollow to me; I fail to understand what is meant by it. It is as if we have just now realised that going to great lengths in order to know a few details about someone’s personal life might not be important or (to carry on the theme of the debate) “interesting.”
The truth is the public is at fault here too. There is an obvious reason as to why some of the media has taken to hacking, which is that exposing some negative or scandalous aspects of a famous or powerful person’s life sells. All that’s needed to prove this is to take a look at the endless stream of magazines and papers whose primary selling point is that they have some exclusive information on ‘X’s new affair/baby/wedding/plastic surgery, and so on. Switching the television on will only further prove this point as you will be bombarded by adverts which will try their best to convince you that Jordan is doing just fine or that you must surely buy one of those aforementioned magazines.
I’d like to believe that this mentality is limited to trash TV and tabloids – a small section of our society, surely. However it’s a bit difficult to carry on believing this when it seems that almost everyone wanted in on the royal wedding and that even now when reading a “serious”, “respectable” paper I need to know that the thing that Kate Middleton wore that day has caused clothing store X to see a 0.0001% rise in profit.
So is it really surprising that papers try to dig up dirt on people by hacking their phones? Of course the media has a responsibility towards the public, yet it does not exist in isolation to us; it is more of a continuous, changing relationship. The public conveys to the media what is acceptable and what isn’t as consumers, and the message we seem to be sending is, “You can shove a camera in someone’s face all day and we will happily read what you have to say about that experience, but if you ever hack someone’s phone you should be severely punished.”
On last night’s Newsnight I finally had “the public interest” explained to me by a guest speaker who described it as “abiding by the law.” I was sorely disappointed with this explanation; I think I would much rather have my phone hacked illegally than have a camera legally follow me around all day. This is not to say that abiding by the law isn’t in the public interest, it obviously is. But in the case of the phone hacking scandal, in my opinion, the public interest is not anything to do with the law. It is a moral, cultural and even spiritual issue. It is in the public’s interest to reject a type of journalism and entertainment which brings out our basest of instincts.
The fact that scandals and gossip sell indicates that, on some level, a wealthy celebrity life style is desired. Even if the magazines and TV shows are self consciously “trashy” there is still an implicit message that what they present is desirous due to its wealth, supposed beauty and sheer otherness. And if the story is negative, if some footballer has been caught in an extra-marital affair, we can judge him and feel good about ourselves by comparing our far superior morality to that of the footballer, who is, of course, culpable to scrutiny due to his most noble social role and duty of playing of football.
By the end of the Newsnight segment I was quite sure that the meaning of the “public interest” had been lost among the debaters. The most striking moment was when one of them challenged the rest with a statement to the effect of “well if the papers had been exposing child sex trafficking or other criminal acts would you still be holding to your position?” The sad fact is that the papers were doing no such thing. What was important to them was not the most atrocious of crimes but what Bruce Forsyth’s shopping list looked like that week. What if all that effort had been put into uncovering actual crimes instead? Perhaps some lives might have been saved. That such time and effort was put into phone hacking reveals much about the public as well as the media, and if we want the media to change, perhaps it’s time we developed different interests.
Photo credits: http://worldocricket.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/hidden-facts-behind-fake-evidences-of-news-of-the-world/
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.