Extraordinary movement in the phone hacking case today – and presumably only the beginning of a torrent of admissions and concessions. This is good. But there’s something about the indignation of the celebs (and near-celebs and non-celebs) caught up in the phone hacking mess – those whose names appeared on those long lists of ‘targets’ and whose personal information showed up in tawdry news stories – that limits sympathy. Politician blustering, starlet whining etc. I can’t quite throw my circle of empathy around this group of moaners. I want to say: “change your bloody PIN and move on, you crowd of money-grubbing dimwits.”
But hold on, cease your righteous typing in the comment box. I know that would be wrong. I know this is serious, but the offense here is not one of kind – it’s not the essentially adolescent crime of trying a few obvious PINs on a minor royal’s voicemail – but of recklessness, of hugely overdoing it. Had the editors and reporters felt able to confine their ‘hacking’ (it barely merits the label) to genuine miscreants – cocaine lords, oligarchs, privy councillors – this practice would and probably should have carried on essentially unnoticed into the future. In fact, used with discretion and in the public interest – like ‘camera bags‘ and dressing up as a sheik – it would have formed a useful part of the investigative package.
It was the simple greed and desperation for stories (and the whole culture of ‘going out and getting’ and ‘proactively producing’ stories) that blew this up and gave it the potential to undermine journalism as a profession and as a vital public service. Let’s be clear, the ultimate villains in all this will be the editors who permitted, if not actually sponsored, this conduct. And it’s obvious that this is much larger than a single newspaper and a single editor (or even a single proprietor).
A whole generation of Fleet St editors (with a handful of exceptions, I’m sure) will leave their posts having radically diminished their profession and their business – those who put up with or directed this miserable dilution of the values of investigative journalism. And the big question is whether this and other increasingly desperate competitive measures marks the beginning of some kind of final decline for the prints.
There’s a kind of morbid postscript to the whole thing, of course, for we humble readers and voters. It’s the bit where we suspect that legislators were compromised and embarrassed by what they suspected the tabloids had on them and consequently sat on their hands during crucial debates on regulation and ownership. That bit makes my blood boil. The idea that editors may have literally (and I’m using the word ‘literally’ literally here) blackmailed MPs not to back legislation they didn’t like is heartstopping. A giant affront to democracy (it was when Tom Watson alerted us to this nastiness that I really switched on to this scandal).