It’s July 2001, and the big media furore of the month revolves around Chris Morris’ Brass Eye Special. The TV programme is a satire of the moral panics created by newspapers over paedophilia, and the reaction to it is nearly as savage as the comedy itself. Newspapers and politicians are falling over themselves to attack a show which, they say, pokes fun at the victims of paedophiles, ignoring the fact that it’s actually poking fun at how newspapers themselves view child abuse. The Daily Mail questions whether it’s ‘the sickest TV show ever’. The irony-free Daily Star goes one better, juxtaposing its kneejerk criticism of Morris with a photo of the then distinctly under-age Charlotte Church, and a comment on how the 15-year-old is looking ‘chest swell’.
What a difference ten years makes. It’s now July 2011, and today the Brass Eye reaction seems like knockabout slapstick farce. Chris Morris’ main target, the News of the World, died in the water this week, its increasingly barf-worthy transgressions eclipsing anything he could have made up.
It’s shocking how numbed I became to the news these past few days. I’ve seldom felt the same chill down my spine as I did at ten seconds past six on Tuesday, when that photo of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in their football shirts flashed up at the start of the news. By Thursday, the lidocaine of relentless revelation had finally taken effect: so they’ve hacked into the voicemails of dead soldiers’ parents while keeping the Royal British Legion as their campaign partner? Well yeah, pretty sick, but perfectly unsurprising.
So the News of the World promptly vanishes in a puff of business logic. It leaves little debris: 167 years of media history; scores of livid, genuinely innocent, ex-journos; thousands of distraught families wondering if they too were on the hack list; and Twitter becoming almost unbearably smug. (Incidentally: told you so). There are many, I’m sure, who want to see this as a watershed in journalism: as the time when Murdoch finally cleaned up his act, when the lower end of the newspaper market realised that it couldn’t trample over tragedies for the sake of a juicy story, and…
…nah, you don’t believe that any more than I do, do you?
Lord Northcliffe understood it best. The Murdoch of the late Victorian to early Edwardian era, he founded the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, and saved the Observer and (arguably) even The Times from financial ruin. His command to his staff? “Get me a murder a day”. It’s an exaggeration to see this week’s news as the logical end-point of his motions: there were other barons like him, and the base human desire to get a thrill from other people’s misfortune is surely as old as intelligence itself.
All the academic theorising about news values (and believe me there’s a lot of it) seems to boil down to one simple truth: short, sharp, fairly nasty stories sell papers. Not for nothing was the News of the World Britain’s most popular Sunday paper, bar none. If you need to ask why more people read The Sun on a weekday than the Mirror, Telegraph, Guardian and Times combined, you won’t go far wrong in remembering Northcliffe’s maxim.
And what of Murdoch’s empire, News Corporation? Clearly, it’s played a blinder: the cynical, cold, calculating nature of the NOTW shutdown is the proprietor at his Machiavellian best. Successfully deflecting the heat of any more revelations, and easing the way towards the grand prize of owning all of BSkyB, what actually happened today was nothing more than extreme rebranding. The Sun on Sunday seems all but a given (even Robert Peston says so), and it’s a fairly safe bet that its circulation figures will be as strong as they could possibly be.
There’s much more to say about this, and much more that we don’t know. Some of the rumours flying round a few days ago implied that phone hacking was much, much more widespread than the News of the World alone. I’d be delighted if that was a lie, but wouldn’t bat an eyelid if it wasn’t. I’m sure that everyone reading this, provided they’re familiar with the UK press, has a mental list of other likely papers who might have stooped as low as the NOTW. Time will tell.
And finally, it’s easy to blame Murdoch and his minions for all this. It’s all too easy to point the finger at those three million people a week who actually bought the paper. But the reality’s far more complex. We’re all, to a greater or lesser extent, in this together. We made it happen, and will continue to make it happen in generations to come. The future may not be quite as sordid as today, but let’s not kid ourselves that cauterising the News of the World will clean up the press – our press – forever.
It’s a depressing conclusion, but inescapable: our collective schadenfreude will forever justify the screaming barons who still call for many more than seven murders per week. As a far wiser man than me once put it, what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, and there is, truly, nothing new under The Sun.