I’m no apologist for The News of the World. A rag that markets to man’s state of nature instincts; that dresses up soft porn and celeb goss as ‘courageous investigative journalism’, not gutless, lowest common denominator conformity; that profits from, and relies on, popular ignorance and apathy; that loads our insalubrious obsession with B- and C-celebrity; that revels in rumour about cabinet ministers and their mistresses; that rejoices in misery because misery sells; that stalks and phone hacks the rich and famous, and dead children and dead children’s parents.
But what about the paper’s campaigning journalism, like its fight for the introduction of Sarah’s Law? Don’t this week’s revelations (shocking, but not at all surprising) tell us anything? That while Sarah’s Law might’ve been good and right, that wasn’t why The News of the World supported it. Its campaigns weren’t moral crusades; rather, it’s clear that the paper was amoral (not ‘immoral’ as many of its critics have said this week; morality of any kind had nothing to do with the decisions and practices of the paper’s editors. The reason why it campaigned for Sarah’s Law and other similar causes was because they were popular – and might help shift a few more papers, especially given the public’s obsession with paedophiles (or ‘e-beasts’ as The News of the World likes to call them).
But here’s what I want to know: how did The News of the World get away with it for so long? Yes, because other papers are also up to no good, so reluctant to go to town on phone hacking (note, when it was revealed that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked this week, not one tabloid featured the story on its front page the next day); yes, because the police were taking money for information, so reluctant to properly investigate (a Met-led inquiry into phone hacking reminds me of when Matt Damon was asked to find himself in The Departed). However, the press and police come second and third to the pitiful absence of leadership among the politicians.
Political leaders, blue and red, cosied up to, and kissed the ass of, Rupert Murdoch, so desperate were they for his endorsement. And when you’re prepared to prostitute yourself and your privileged position (bestowed by the British people), you’re hardly going to, for example, ask questions of Murdoch and his press gang; or demand effective regulation of newspapers; or enforce investigations into obvious instances of illegality. Because that way, all your brown nosing of Murdoch isn’t put to waste.
But why were the politicians so servile? They were scared of something that they needn’t be. Ask yourself: why’s the endorsement of The Sun a precursor to election victory? Is it because Murdoch picks his favourite, then manipulates us all into agreeing with him? No. He sees which way the tide’s turning, then backs the winner. If The Sun hung its hat on et tu Ed Miliband tomorrow, it wouldn’t convince us that Miliband isn’t useless. Because most of us happen to think that Miliband’s useless, regardless of what we read in the newspapers.
Back in ’92, it wasn’t The Sun ‘wot one it’ for Major (as was claimed – by The Sun). Instead, when it superimposed Neil Kinnock’s face inside a light bulb, it merely captured the prevailing trend of public opinion: that while people disliked the Tories, they were scared of Labour, and not ready to vote for Kinnock. In other words, Murdoch’s a populist – and isn’t that the business of a press baron, anyway? It’s just a pity that our politicians have been too paranoid to ever work this out.
So I blame Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and now David Cameron, all as obsequious as each other, for not taking Murdoch on. That said, given that The News of the World shifted 5 million copies every Sunday (making it the biggest selling Sunday newspaper in the world), I’m inclined to think that we get the politicians, and the journalists, that we deserve.
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