It’s hard not to be outraged by the tabloid phone hacking scandal that has engulfed the UK. Although the story has been bubbling around for a while, public indignation seemed to turn something of a blind eye when it ‘only’ affected celebrities, royals and politicians; the revelation that the families of murdered children and victims of terrorism were also hacked has unleashed a tsunami of outrage.
It’s a massive story, exposing the corruption of media figures, police and politicians, the response from whom seems to be along the lines of “I wasn’t there guv”, “I was just following orders” or “No-one ever listens to me.” No-one comes out of this particularly well, except then people who tenaciously ran down the story and (somewhat unexpectedly) Hugh Grant. A lot of the coverage seems to be based on who will be the scapegoat for the whole thing, but it just looks like a bunch of guilty (or at least complicit) cowards deciding which of their number will be thrown under a bus in the hope that the whole mess will go away before any more horror stories emerge.
So everyone’s shocked and horrified and indignant, but…
The BBC have just broadcast from a newsagents in Manchester. In the week that the scandal killed the News of the World, in the week that advertisers abandoned its toxic brand in droves, in the week that everyone was being encouraged to boycott the paper… Well, it turns out it’s been a sell- out. Well done Britain, that’ll show Murdoch!
(Yes, I know it’s an unscientific conclusion to reach, but I bet sales are a) pretty good, and b) a precursor to a whole bunch of copies appearing on eBay in the next few days.)
But that same broadcast was revealing for another reason. Two customers were interviewed: one said they didn’t buy the News of the World regularly but did when the front page contained something “sensational”; the other said they didn’t understand why the hacking had to take place at all. Thing is, the former response answers the latter, and raises questions about our complicity in this whole thing.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the stories obtained by phone hacking were the sort of things that sell papers: sex, scandal, tragedy. In the hands of the media, these things become commodities, and, like our clothes or our food, we consume day after day without asking too many questions about where the product came from. It’s worth remembering that it’s only been a week or so since Princess Diana would have turned 50, had she not been killed in an accident in which the paparazzi were a part. People are willing to take big risks to sell newspapers. It almost feels like the industry needs an ethical equivalant of the Fair Trade logo, but then I wonder how well Fairtade products sell against less ethical competitors…
This scandal should lead to wider questions about how we create and consume media, and hopefully these will go beyond looking at how great Twitter is at allowing us to express indignation in real time. We make choices every time we consume a media ‘product’, and successful businesses react to those choices. We never asked for Milly Dowler’s phone to be hacked; what we have done is fail to ask whether a footballer’s affair is really front page news, or where all those bits of information or ‘anonymous spokesmen’ came from. There comes a point when we get the media we deserve – maybe that’s the most important lesson from a scandal that could – should? – change the UK.