So News International began its promised revenge on New Labour. “You have made it personal about Rebekah, so we'll make it personal about you" an aide to Ed Miliband was told, and immediately afterwards the Sun accused Miliband’s own spin/lie doctor, a former Times journalist, of a long-term coke habit. It seems that all the rest of us can do is sit back and put the verbal boot in.
“Journalists” said someone yesterday, with real loathing, “they’re all scum”. He could have been in an office, or on a bus, or at an alternative media gathering, and wherever, he was not alone. The Guardian may be trumpeting its achievement in breaking the phone hacking story, but it’s a tune that’s noticeably failing to impress most of the population. Journalism has long been among the most distrusted of professions; coming third only to bankers and politicians in a UK survey last year: the behaviour of the News of the World may be a shock to the abused families of the victims, but to everyone else it’s just what you’d expect from a bunch of – “tossers” said the man on the street, venomously.
In fact, providing the public with new reasons to hate journalists may be one of Rupert Murdoch’s greatest achievements. In the current climate it’s pointless to repeat that journalism’s purpose is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. It’s useless to point out that journalism, as the line goes, is “anything that the rich and powerful don’t want you to know about”, irrelevant to cite Watergate, My Lai, Abu Ghraib, PFI and ‘extraordinary rendition’ as scoops. To argue that the News of the World – along with the Sun, the Mail, the Express et al – are rarely journalists, but are largely obeying orders to act as renegade spies, snoops, voyeurs and hatemongers, gets you nowhere. The public, who do not read the Guardian, have had their prejudice confirmed, again.
For someone who eschewed the mainstream after it failed to show any interest in the true nature of the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s not hard to see why this point of view is so entrenched. As government lies were recycled by just about all news outlets it was easy to believe that journalism had suffered a collective breakdown – attributable, variously, to lack of moral fibre, ignorance, incompetence, gullibility, and corporate power. It was certainly evidence of a cognitive dissonance which anyone who remembered the miners’ strike would have recognised. As the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down on the micro-managed stage of an otherwise devastated Baghdad, I was with a group of careworkers, their expressions redolent of extreme disbelief amounting to indifference. “They’re lying”, their shoulders shrugged. “They always have and they always will”.
Murdoch had, of course, supported the Iraq invasion because it would bring down the price of oil. The BBC, ITV and most of our national print media had, for reasons of their own, followed suit, while local papers, owned by Murdoch’s Newsquest, fell into line. The careworkers knew this, even though they did not “know” it: polls repeatedly showed that around 70 percent of the country shared this common sense. And yet, all around them, the front pages and the tv headlines were displaying an insanity. No wonder that the small triumphs of journalism – a protesting letter from ex-diplomats in the Guardian; Piers Morgan’s brief anti-war tenure at the Mirror - largely went unnoticed.
And if they were noticed by the rest of the press, the diplomats were reviled as ‘camel humpers’, while there was a stunning silence about the supposed scandal which cost Morgan his job at the Mirror. This was the leaked images of UK involvement in the torture of Iraqi detainees, whic were said to be faked, although the story itself was true. Morgan’s own biography makes no mention of the pressures which caused him to leave quietly, rather than fight his corner. But the Sun was after him. Looking at the white, sweating picture of Miliband’s aide which adorns the front page of that paper, one can only be surprised that Murdoch’s vested interests allowed Morgan to remain for so long.
Otherwise, the thought that blackmail, fear, spying and coercion keep our establishment figures in line is hardly news. Stories of potentially troublesome MP’s being called in by MI5 and shown their secret dossier are old. John Major’s possession of a ‘little black book’ full of MP’s secrets, with which he silenced unruly party members when a party whip (the language here is surely instructive) is well documented. “What do they have on Miliband?” everyone is now asking. “What do they have on Cameron? On Clegg? On Farage? On Murdoch? What do they have on me?”
And the last question is naturally the most pressing. The spying on celebrities failed to raise much more than a “well, they’re fair game”; the hacking of politicians ditto. But the spying on ‘normal’ people has understandably served to reinforce something which one could call public paranoia, if public paranoia were not so plainly justified. We are living in a country where local councils can now legally tap your phone. Employers search with impunity through staff facebooks. Children are fingerprinted and filmed. The public are turned into apparatchicks: signs on trains urge passengers to text in anonymously and report fare dodgers; announcements constantly insist that we must report anything ‘suspicious’, even though the last suspicious atrocity here happened six years ago.
And this is the shame, and Murdoch’s triumph, and that of others like him; that journalism is now publicly seen as just another part of this iniquitous surveillance state; not merely a provider of its propaganda. Still, tapping into Millie Dowler’s phone was criminal; failing to act as the voice of the voiceless is another sort of crime: a criminal dereliction of a duty.
It is easy to say that a populist tabloid culture has fostered this dereliction: the press savaging the workers who buy it, and who deserve nothing better. But journalism has a populist heritage which stretches back at least to 1817, and the Leeds Mercury’s revelation that the UK government were using agent provocateurs at marches. Ironically, it was the Mail which revealed that an undercover policeman was acting as an agent provocateur at the march against the last Bush visit - a writer had managed to sneak her report into the Femail section. That story has since vanished from the Mail’s website; but when Steve Coogan adds furious condemnation of the paper to Hugh Grant’s stance against the News of the World, he is speaking for journalists, not against them.
There are basic rules for journalists. You don’t go after people for being human and having a private life. You don’t act as the mouthpiece for power. You don’t betray trust. You check facts. And, alongside people like Michelle Stanistreet, who took her own paper, the Express, to the PCC, and is now president of the NUJ; Nick Davies; the Independent’s Johann Hari and Simon Carr; documentary maker Adam Curtis, and some others, we now have the ‘alternative’ press; otherwise known as the digital media.
From Common Dreams to Open Democracy, Counterpunch to Corporate Watch, the Daily Mash to the Onion: either the pressure of unheard voices is becoming too intense to ignore, or the public genuinely want facts. It is, of course, tempting to point out that most of the public don’t read these internet sites, just as they don’t read the Guardian, or Private Eye. But their words and images, through twitter and email and facebook, are still spreading, just as they did when the ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’ (no relation) was sold illegally on the streets of nineteenth century Manchester. Visionontv currently has video journalists (they call themselves activists, possibly in self defence) operating in Liverpool, London and internationally; the tradition is being reinvented, as it must be, to keep it alive.
“Scum”, the man on the street was repeating, to general agreement. And, in a sense, he was right. All journalists are scum: the froth which floats to the top of a putrid stew, and signals its true nature. The Fourth Estate, originally designated as the protector of the people, should be proud of it.