Will the phone hacking scandal do to the tabloid press what the expenses furore did to parliament? Probably not, but it should
January 28, 2011
A guest post by PencilCase
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the departure of Andy Coulson as Director of Communications at Number 10 last Friday represents just the tip of a very large and grubby iceberg. As a number of features in Sunday’s Observer make clear, the scale of the alleged phone hacking that went on at the News of the World is huge, perhaps involving thousands of celebrities and public figures. Stories are also emerging of other newspapers facing legal action over hacking allegations, threatening to make this an industry-wide issue.
While it’s important to state that many of these allegations are still just that, allegations, a picture is emerging of an ethically wayward and hubristic world in which corrupt practices – some teetering on the edge of unlawfulness, others well over the edge – had become endemic. If this world sounds familiar, that’s because we glimpsed a very similar one not so long ago, called Parliament. The MPs expenses scandal caused national outrage on an unprecedented scale and took a sledge-hammer to the public’s already brittle faith in politicians and political institutions. The phone hacking allegations uncover the behaviour of a similarly arrogant metropolitan elite, disconnected from the standards and values of the ordinary people they claim to serve.
Yet while the expenses scandal provoked torrents of vitriol from the British public, the majority now seem relatively unmoved by hacking-gate. It’s hard to know for sure why this is the case. Perhaps people just expect this kind of behaviour from the media? Perhaps they do, but one of the main reasons MP’s expenses caused so much ire was because it seemed to confirm for many people what they had suspected of politicians all along, which makes expectation alone an unlikely reason for the relative calm over the present scandal. I think one of the most convincing reasons why people seem less concerned about journalists hacking into answer machines, is that it’s harder to see how the scandal affects them, particularly in respect of power. The lines of power and privilege are relatively clear in national politics – we elect the MPs in good faith to positions of power and pay them with our taxes. Any wrongdoing on the part of MPs, particularly involving public money, is a clear offence against trust and democracy. By contrast, the power held by journalists and the media over the individual is less clear. For starters, the phone hacking stories seem mainly to involve celebrities – figures distant to and disconnected from the lives of most people. Secondly, we like to think of ourselves as free and autonomous consumers of media. If we don’t like something we see or read, or don’t like the behaviour of those who produce it, we don’t have to wait until the next election to register our displeasure – we can simply switch channels, or stop buying a particular paper. Journalists, unlike politicians, aren’t seen as wielding real power and influence over our lives.
But the truth is, journalists and the media hold and exercise enormous power and influence within our society, not just in terms of the access media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks have to those in political power, but in terms of the values and opinions they propagate. This issue is particularly important for the left, who virulently oppose the bigoted, fear-mongering nature of these opinions. Moreover, with an understanding of the socially and culturally constructed nature of the self, the left understands just how deeply ingrained such attitudes can become. We should be unashamed in using the phone hacking scandal to inflict a body blow on the right-wing tabloid press that does so much to perpetuate sexism, racism and the interminable cult of celebrity that poison our culture.