Magazine

A Point of View: The tittle-tattle business

Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant and Max Mosley give evidence to the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions
Image caption The Leveson inquiry and parliamentary committees have been investigating

With many of the headlines this year dominated by the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, Will Self reflects on the new landscape for the media.

Standing in a chilly south London car park outside a recreation centre, I began chatting with a couple of other fathers who were also waiting for their sons to come back from a Scouting trip.

The weather was mooted as were some filial idiosyncrasies. However, soon enough the conversation took a darker turn - "Ooh, yes," said one amiable chap, who, in his anorak and jeans, looked about as prurient as a white rabbit, "isn't it great - we've got the telly on all day in the office."

What he was referring to, as he rubbed his hands with glee, was the Leveson Inquiry into the media and, in particular, into certain journalistic malpractices - stalking, harassment, intimidation, phone and computer hacking - that pursued in tandem have, for many years now, constituted a systematic invasion of the privacy of those judged to be newsworthy.

Image caption Singer Charlotte Church was among the celebrities to give evidence

The nice man in the car park gave me no reason to believe he himself was in the media, which left me wondering what sort of business it was that either allowed, or possibly even encouraged its employee to watch television at work.

Or was it that these judicial proceedings were for him and his colleagues an upscale version of pop music being played over a factory PA - that the evidence of furious film stars and intimidated starlets, quondam prime ministerial press officers and supermodels' personal assistants, stony-faced comedians and the parents of murdered and abducted children was for these office workers a sing-along sort of thing?

It made sense to me, after all, with a wide variety of journalists, private eyes and media executives having been in the phone-hacking affair, and with Fleet Street resounding - one assumes - with the shredding noise of acts being vigorously cleaned up, where else could a Briton's reliable appetite for scandal be satisfied?

The Leveson Inquiry - like the parliamentary select committee that preceded it - had done the public the service of concentrating all the prurient material it so thrives on - the infidelities and illegitimacies, the sadomasochism and the perversion of justice - in a sort of one-stop-shop, where gossip of all sorts was available live on television.

Of course, it may well be that my interlocutor on that November evening had a wholly noble reason for watching the Leveson Inquiry. Whatever our occupations, surely all of us, as citizens, should take an interest in surveying the debatable land that lies between the freedom of the press and its unethical license.

Moreover, the revelations of malpractice at the now-defunct News of the World in the early 2000s that led to the jailing of its royal correspondent and the private voyeur Glenn Mulcaire, were only the first golden threads leading into a labyrinthine tangle of power, influence and outright corruption.

The five long years that elapsed between Mulcaire's first arrest and his second represented the extent to which the political class, the media watchdogs and the police had become the three wise monkeys of public life in this country. Actually, that's being unfair to those sagacious and passive primates, because some British politicians, media executives and even senior policemen were all quite active when it came to preserving an ethically warped status quo.

The former kowtowed so egregiously to Rupert Murdoch and his minions that it was sometimes difficult to know where News International's editorial policy ended and that of successive governments began. Witnessing the delirious inability of the Press Complaints Commission to self-regulate was like watching an alcoholic in charge of a cocktail bar.

As for the police, while many of us on or around Fleet Street have known for years that information of all sorts flowed in one way and money in the other, the admission by the Surrey Constabulary that they had been called by the News of the World in 2002, and had been aware at that time that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's mobile phone had been hacked by them, yet failed to do anything about it, appears as perhaps the most telling evidence of a blessing for damnable behaviour.

Perhaps the most pernicious erosion of moral probity in British public life over the past quarter-century has been the willingness of high-ranking civil servants to cash their chips in and become the tools of corporate interests. While Britons still eschew the grubbiness of envelopes stuffed with cash, they've become increasingly comfortable with receiving pay packets in return for influence, contacts and insider knowledge.

The hacking scandal offers us the inverse of this unedifying spectacle in the form of tabloid poachers turned official spokeskeepers, and government ministers not only supping with the devil unequipped with the necessary long spoon, but shovelling down his caviar with their bare hands.

It's not that I don't take seriously the dudgeon of Messrs Grant, Coogan and Mosley et al, nor, obviously, the far greater distress of the parents of murder victims, or those like the innocent Chris Jefferies who was, charged and convicted of the murder of Joanna Yeates by the lowest court in the land, the gutter press, but the ostensible issue of privacy that the phone-hacking scandal seems to highlight, is, so far as I'm concerned, just that.

It is these wider waves of amoral sepsis pulsing through the body politic that should concern us more, these and the still more fulminating malignancy of our own appetite for scandals of all sorts, but the more lurid the better.

The late Willie Donaldson in his guise as curmudgeon-cum-farceur Henry Root coined a catch-all phrase to express the hand-wringing of liberal types such as myself - "We are all to blame". But yes, actually, when it comes to the phone hacking disease and its hysterical sequelae we are, indeed, all to blame.

We have, it strikes me, been living for some time now in a curious inversion of the sort of totalitarian state that once existed behind the Iron Curtain.

Image caption Some celebrities have complained about the media glare

Instead of a secret police force being used by the ruling elite to monitor the private lives of the masses, we, the masses, have acquiesced in the activities of a blatant media force, whose task it is to eavesdrop on the lives of a select few. And whereas the Eastern Bloc's so-called communists sought to perpetuate their dominance, we have only succeeded in maintaining our own subjugation.

It was, I believe, no accident that it was the hacking of Millie Dowler's phone that finally unlashed the tarpaulin from this skip full of worms - the Great British Public didn't really object to the Sienna Millers of this world being hounded by the paparazzi, nor their voicemail messages being listened into.

The old Victorian hypocrisy that divided all women into virtuous and fallen has synergised with the mass media in a sort of bogus egalitarianism to produce this strange conviction - that any woman who seeks notoriety, by that fact alone becomes public property, along with their spouses, relatives, lovers and even children.

Of course, the same is true of well-known men, but since naked images of them seldom shift product, their cannibalisation normally takes a less blatant form.

This is Andy Warhol's future, where, courtesy of reality television and talent competitions, everyone can be famous for 15 minutes because the idea that renown should follow from substantive achievement has been completely abandoned.

We even delight in the still more bizarre spectacle of those who gain genuine success in one sphere trading on it in another, which renders modesty of any sort laughable rather than virtuous. Whatever you thought of Anne Widdecombe as a minister, it's impossible not to think less of her as a competitive ballroom dancer, and for that perception to retrospectively inform your judgement of her political career.

Only a murdered teenage girl could possibly float Madonna-like above this swirling cess-pit of narcissism, envy and the commoditisation of celebrity, only her parents' abuse by the News of the World could be seen as incontestably vile.

There are those who say any restrictions on the media's freedom to deem what is in the public interest would herald a terrible new regime of Puritanism, repression and litigation. In some ways I agree. A free people does indeed require a free press, one that is continually evolving to fit HL Mencken's definitions of the role of responsible journalism - that it should "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted".

The trouble is that we are no longer a free people. Instead, addicted to prurient titillation and apathetic to the point of nihilism, the entire sweep of our recent history proclaims us to be a nation that knows the price of everything - especially our houses - and the value of nothing.

How can we expect anything better of our fourth estate, when estates one-through-three are also mired in scandal? Let us not forget that while 2011 was the year of media malfeasance, 2010 was that of parliamentarians' peccancy, and 2009 that of our true temporal and spiritual lords - the financiers' finagling - while, as for the Queen, if you were a Martian visiting this realm, you would doubtless soon be convinced that our head of state derived her authority from the perfection of her granddaughter-in-law's sister's buttocks.

Image caption The internet has chipped away at newspapers' hold on gossip

This brings us, fairly logically, to the web, a medium that with its worldwide reach puts the red tops in the permanent shade. Seen one way the phone hacking scandal is all about timeless issues of press probity and political power, but looked at another it is only the superficial form of an underlying shift from print technologies to electronic ones.

The indiscriminate use of voicemail interception in search of tittle-tattle was only the rearguard action of a press whose monopoly on pernicious gossip has, in the past decade, been chipped away at by a trillion keystrokes. Should I wish, for example, to indulge my salacious interest in the monarch's granddaughter-in-law's sister I can break off from what I should be doing - writing, for example, this Point of View - and in seconds find myself following Pippa Middleton's ass on Twitter.

Some optimists believe that the ubiquity of the web and the alacrity of other electronic media will bring about a new era of citizen power and democracy - they point to phenomena as diverse as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement as evidence of this. But I have my doubts - if the medium is indeed the message, it seems to me that the split-second, unfiltered character of the web speaks to us of instant and isolated gratifications rather than well-thought-out and collective political engagement.

One thing is for certain, unless we're credulous enough to take Google's credo of "doing no evil" as the last word in moral probity, surely we must expect not less intrusion, exploitation and smut-peddling in a brave new wired world, but more.

The Leveson Inquiry has drawn the attention of people outside the Westminster and Fleet Street villages to the existence of a systematically corrupt and corrupting dimension to public life in this country. Whether or not it will result in a purgative strong enough to clean these Augean stables seems doubtful.

The expenses scandal was meant to bring about a wholesale change in the remuneration of our legislators - but that seems to have been quietly put on hold. No doubt the nice chap in the South London car park was as outraged by a claim for a duck house to be paid for by the taxpayer as he is by phone hacking, but if there's anything more reliable than an appetite for scandal, it's the jaded quality of that palate.

Come the New Year there'll probably be some other cupidity to watch live on daytime television. It's often said that the great virtue of the British constitution is its organic development, but one of the problems with organisms is that they are also always subject to decay.