Thursday, 21 July 2011
The scandal that has engulfed the News of the World, and more broadly the journalistic culture of Britain’s tabloid media, has given credence to widespread questioning of the implications, legitimacy, and function of journalism in modern society. This ‘imbroglio’ (ask Will Self) has, to a limited degree, resulted in greater reservations being held concerning the necessity of the gossip-obsessed culture of ‘red-top media’ and, accordingly, the populist voyeurism which has, in many ways, come to define today’s most common socio-cultural inclinations.
The reputation of British tabloids for ruinously intrusive reporting, facilitated it appears, in some cases, through illegal practices such as phone-hacking, has always been somewhat controversial. Those directly affected by hounding cabals of journalists and photographers, and those who have been exposed for issues as diverse as corruption and cellulite, have understandably held some disdain, even moralistic judgement, for their hack oppressors. However, the sympathy that these, often multi-millionaire, celebrities have mustered has always been somewhat scant; seen by many as par-for-the-course, a sort of jealously imagined trade-off for having such successful lives. In fact, as has been repeatedly aired in recent days, these stories were immensely successful for a newspaper market increasingly challenged by the threat of rolling television news, social media, and the ubiquitous and infinitely varied resources of the internet. While the vigour of all forms of print-media has deteriorated in recent times the tabloid press have managed to retain a profitable print-run, whereas in contrast most broadsheets have become economic liabilities on the whole. It is argued that this success has been a by-product, to some degree, of the titillating and intrusive/‘investigative’ tales of scandal and woe which have become commonplace.
This voyeuristic tabloid journalism, which has developed since the 1980s, has, as such, had two paralleled and opposing affects; a creation of ire amongst those affected and those who feel, on some moral ground, that this form of public salivation is degrading for all involved, yet simultaneously a positive popular reception which has given print-media forms purveying this kind of reporting added longevity. In the market-based world we live in this has simply become a paradigm of ‘supply and demand’; this kind of journalism wouldn’t be done if it wasn’t popular and, accordingly, the ‘moral concerns’ of ‘lefties and oversensitive celebrities’ are at odds with the majority: they are just uptight.
Recent events have certainly aroused these discussions to the point of crescendo, concentrating the complaints of these groups and hardening them with the reality of actual wrong-doing and illegality. In fact, the recognition of the impropriety of the tabloid press, and a severe questioning of their methods and content, has almost undoubtedly grown more widespread. However, the response of journalists and commentators, in particular, has been to defend their style of reporting; concentrating on the revelations of disturbing practices which have already claimed the life of the News of the World. They have triumphantly returned to the ‘supply and demand argument’; some even seem to think they have gallantly defended world, through their ‘free reporting’, from the next Hitler, rejecting claims for greater regulation of print journalism. The argument essentially runs that by calling for an end to this style of reporting you are a snob, you are ignoring its popularity, and by this time next week some sort of tyrannical dictator will have taken power under the guise of being another lifeless politician who listens to the Arctic Monkeys because of you, and your idiotic meddling. You will be crying when he actually listens to Richard Wagner, WHILE KILLING YOUR CHILDREN AND THEIR MORALS SIMULTANEOUSLY!!
But this argument, while seemingly powerful in many debates and discussions, is fundamentally flawed, something of a straw man, and indicative of the hazy post-dictatorship democratic moralism which dominates modern society in times of difficulty.
Firstly, the separation of means and results is naive to the realisation that only through the competition for the next story, the even greater piece of intrigue, came the development of illegal, and disturbingly intrusive, methods such as phone-hacking.
This argument also overplays the usefulness and respectability of this genre of journalism; an expose into the sex-life of a premiership footballer is not conducive to a freer and fairer society, it is not inherently in the ‘public interest’ (whatever this over-used and under-elaborated-upon phrase actually means). There are some elements of this journalistic intrusion which can, to a degree, be defended as examining and exposing corruption and duplicity which is potentially damaging for society and those within it. Investigative journalism into areas, such as the recent discovery of match-fixing rings including Pakistan cricket players, undoubtedly plays an important role within a free society; however, there are many articles under this moniker which in reality are purely to embrace the oft-quoted public appetite for dirt.
The central element of this argument, of a public baying for blood in a coliseum of sexualised gossip, relies on the fact that the popular clamour for intricate gossip and sordid tales comes from a group of entirely well-informed, independent, and self-assured individuals who just happen to have chosen this form of media because it fits their world-view. This is ignorant of the fact that, as is widely appreciated, the media has an unprecedented influence upon the public. As such, it is hardly surprising that, fed an ever more intrusive brand of media gossiping, an appetite for this has developed. Creating a clamour for something amongst people and then claiming it is an unbridled right of any democratic society for the people to be able to choose it, even if on most levels it is a deplorable and distasteful thing, is a dangerous development, it is by many definitions the kind of tactic used in dictatorial societies. The idea that the public need gossip and the cheap, sexualised miniscule details of minor celebrities’ ostensibly dull lives out of some inner humanity is a ridiculous suggestion; we like a bit of intrigue and excitement, but our genealogy doesn’t include a ‘who is Katie Price sleeping with?’ gene.
The idea that regulation would be dangerous, and that a completely free press able to report on anything and everything without respect for social and cultural conventions and the lives of others, is erroneous. The defence of ‘supply and demand’ is an overly-democratic attempt to hoodwink people into letting the media have a free-run, at a time when escalating extremity is seen by some as the only solution to diminishing readerships. The print media, like any other area of society, needs to have some regulation and set conventions. Perhaps with a greater grasp upon the extremities of a disorderly tabloid press the development of a society obsessively interested with the miniscule and sordid details of public figures will cease, perhaps a new age for the media can also help dictate (and the press, like nothing else, does help dictate the nature of a society) a more well-rounded and ambitious society.