Entry from November 30, 2011

Today’s New York Times reports on the evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid phone-hacking in Britain by one Paul McMullan, formerly deputy features editor at The News of the World — the Sunday tabloid that Rupert Murdoch closed down when the revelations about phone-hacking came out last summer. Here’s what Mr McMullan had to say:

“Phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool, given the sacrifices we make, if all we’re trying to do is get to the truth,” Mr. McMullan said, asking whether “we really want to live in a world where the only people who can do the hacking are MI5 and MI6.” No, he said, we do not. “For a brief period of about 20 years, we have actually lived in a free society where we can hack back,” he said. Journalists in Britain have traditionally justified shady practices by arguing that they are in “the public interest.” Asked by an inquiry lawyer how he would define that, Mr. McMullan said that the public interest is what the public is interested in.

The logic is impeccable, really, when you think about it, though one infers that the Times does not agree with it for some reason. Its disapproval of the “jaw-droppingly brazen” Mr McMullan may or may not be related to that vague reference to “shady practices” — by which the author (Sarah Lyall) obviously does not mean the practices of the Times itself in, for example, its collaboration with Mr Julian Assange and the Wikileaks project to publicize America’s military and diplomatic secrets. But it is not easy to see why the public’s right to know is supposed to be sacrosanct in the latter case and non-existent in the former.

As Christina Patterson of The Independent noted, “It’s our obsession with celebrity that’s on trial” before Lord Justice Leveson.

Yes, there is a section of our press that has become “toxic”, but this isn’t just about the press. When people rush out to buy newspapers that plaster the secrets of people’s sex lives, and medical records, and interior décor, and unannounced pregnancies, and private walks in their dead daughter’s last steps, where do they think they come from? Do they think the “celebrities” involved are just so thrilled to be “celebrities” that they can’t resist phoning tabloid hacks to spill more beans? Do they think it’s done on a nice cup of tea and a handshake? Blame the hacks if you like, but what about the “sources”, in hospitals, and police stations, and clinics, and hotels, and restaurants, who see any whiff of a “celebrity” life as a fast track to a fast buck?

But she stops short of fingering the real culprits who, as with illegal drugs or prostitution, are on the demand side and who always get off lightly as compared with the entrepreneurial types who are merely trying to make a living out of the others’ disreputable appetites.

My favorite comment on the subject so far has also come from The Independent, for which the comic novelist Howard Jacobson, winner of last year’s Man Booker prize for The Finkler Question, writes a weekly column. He not only sees that it is the consumers at least as much as the producers of tabloid trash with whom the fault lies, but he also identifies the source of our appetite for what they produce with our stunted imaginations. What he has to say on this subject is so good that it deserves to be quoted at length.

The popular press stimulates a gross curiosity in us of which we should be ashamed. If that sounds moralistic or elitist, so be it. But I don’t have the slightest doubt that a salacious interest in Katie Price’s artificial breasts is on a continuum with a salacious interest in Hugh Grant’s private life and ultimately the McCanns’ grief. We cannot defend one half of it as harmless fun and then offer to be outraged by the other. Low is low. And if there is a cross-infection from triviality to coarseness to cynicism to cruelty and back again, why should we be surprised? If we can accept that borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry, why shouldn’t we accept that prurience dulls the edge of fellow feeling, and jeering the edge of our humanity. Curiosity is not to be confused with imagination. Nor is the imagination to be confused with daydreaming. Those poets and teachers who have been concerned with the imagination — Wordsworth, George Eliot, Lionel Trilling, etc. — have not understood it as a preserve of literati. The imagination is the faculty whereby, in the act of reading and thinking and observing, we get to know ourselves and discover a similar capacity for pleasure and pain in others. It can be no coincidence that it’s the editors of the least imaginatively refined publications — whose catchword is “give the public the crap the public wants” — who care least about privacy, who are the most pitiless and retributive, who are the first to ransack hearts in no cause but that of sales and titillation, and who are the last to grasp or care what they have done. Would you not think that even the most cynical would pause before the fact of resemblance — a person-to-person acknowledgement that suchabody’s sexual indiscretions, say, were no different to their own? Of all people to stay away from lapses of that sort, you would expect journalists — the most hard living of men and women — to be the first. If we are not bonded in our knowledge of temptation, and then again in our knowledge of succumbing to it, what chance is there of our ever being bonded in anything? See what happens when our imaginations grow inured to dross.

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