The spectacular demise of the British tabloid News of the World is an uglier story than we might allow.
Castigated by the entire British public for its illegal phone hacking — especially of a thirteen year-old murder victim’s phone, leading investigators to think she was still alive — the newspaper shuttered on Sunday. Now Gordon Brown, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, says he’s a victim of the phone hacks too. The story is exploding. Hacking phones? Paying off the police? Shame, shame!
But whose shame?
Our indignation at the intrusiveness of the paparazzi is only exceeded by our desire for photos of celebrities. Our shock and horror at the failure of newspapers to cover serious stories is only exceeded by our desire to click on a 385th slide show of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s lips doing unusual things. We’ve always wanted “wars and lechery,”as Shakespeare’s Thersites put it. And as Howard Kurtz observes, we are largely indifferent to where the stories come from.
When newspapers were in print, we could pretend that we read from the front page backward, didn’t skip the financial section, and certainly disdained the comics. We could conceal our News of the World inside a Times. When pressed, we could lie. “I only read it for the Page Three semi-nude pictures,” we would claim. “Certainly not the sensationalist stories of murdered teens.”
No longer. Now everything is laid bare. Follow the clicks. We claim we care about the debt ceiling. What we actually search for? That’s another story. So investigative departments are pruned and foreign bureaus consigned to the winds. Find someone to blog for free about serial killers, preferably accompanied with shots of cleavage! (Although perhaps the Huffington Post already has that market cornered.) Google makes hypocrites of us all.
Sex and violence have always been what sold. Shakespeare, no highbrow, peppered his plays with it. No one went to the Globe to hear men in ruffled collars declaim floral metaphors. Write for the groundlings! The News of the World was aimed squarely at the groundlings. But the lesson the Internet teaches is that fundamentally we are all groundlings.
Perhaps the real indignation stems not from the fact that phones were hacked, but from the shocking revelation that some of these phones did not belong to celebrities. Celebrities turn in any expectation of privacy at the door. But a thirteen year-old murder victim? 9/11 families? Paying off Scotland Yard? That’s, apparently, where we draw the line.
But the biggest shock of the News of the World shutdown is how shocked everyone was. The News of the World, as numerous opiners have opined, is not alone in its aims, although its tactics may have been more than usually despicable. “Quite simply, we lost our way,” said the paper’s last editorial. But how lost? It was simply supplying demand. That is what all newspapers, respectable or not, are striving to do these days. We are so single-minded in our pursuit of the elusive rabbit of popular demand that sometimes we run off a cliff and spend several seconds hanging in the air before we notice.
And the questions of this case will linger. Where does journalism end? These days, it’s blurred. The satirical Onion wants a Pulitzer. The National Enquirer almost gets one. Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe pull pranks that turn into national news stories.
But we are the reason they did it, of course. We’ll click on Murdoch’s papers in an instant, but turn on them just as quickly. It’s our hypocritical horror at what we’ve demanded. Why this line?
“If we don’t give it to them, someone else will,” is the new argument in a nutshell, as Howard Kurtz points out. Is there anything to be said for not giving everyone everything they want all the time? Probably not. Murdoch is already reportedly thinking of reconstituting the paper under a different name. If he does, we’ll read it.