Unpalatable Truths about Us

Hacking voicemails and paying police officers to get stories for the newspapers. Plagiarising other writers’ interviews to polish your own articles. The sad and unpalatable truth is that most people simply don’t care that much about any of this.

Of course they ought to care, just as I ought to do more exercise and eat more vegetables. It doesn’t change the fact that they don’t.

The reality is that even though there have been some momentous changes like News Corp dropping its bid for BSkyB, the closure of the News of the World, the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, the bipartisan political support for criminal and civil investigation and inquiry into the methods of the media, the suspension of Johann Hari and investigation by the Orwell Prize committee and so on, most of these will have been of minimal note to the vast majority of the population. Even on twitter, a self-selecting minority of the more engaged part of the online population the retirement of Pam St Clements from her role as Pat Butcher in East Enders had a higher profile than hackgate at its height.

In part this might be down to a continuation of the “well they would do wouldn’t they” approach to the wider world. When the bid for BSkyB first made the news I remember being mildly surprised that News Corp didn’t already own a majority stake in BSkyB – it had been portrayed by most of the rest of the media as being controlled by Rupert Murdoch for years. From the slight experience I’ve had in being interviewed for comments by the press it wasn’t that big a surprise to hear that Johann Hari hadn’t in fact elicited nice, fully formed quotes from his interviewees (a small confession here, as one of the editors of my Sixth Form College magazine I published a largely fictional interview with a fellow student who worked on the theatre lighting and effects – someone else had gone to interview him but hadn’t really managed to get much out of him so I just made it up, ironically the same guy has now become something of a big name in lighting and effects so I missed out there). It was more of a surprise to find so much evidence of actually cribbing large chunks from other writers and interviewers just because it seems pretty unnecessary.

That tabloid journalists do pretty much anything to get a story and are as amoral in their methods as they are moralistic in their published tone was probably the biggest non-story of them all. Even though, of course, things like hacking into Milly Dowler’s voicemail and that of victims of 7/7 or 9/11 managed to lower a bar that most would have thought to be already unlimboable. That said, Will Self has (as ever) an interesting take on how ordinary people are now considered fair game for being mistreated in the same way as celebrities: http://bit.ly/nmhIrY

Bent coppers have been a staple of British life for years. They can be banal, as the ones involved in the allegations around the investigation of hacking claims. Or they can be strangely sympathetic, like Gene Hunt in Life on Mars (in my opinion rather less interesting when rather less corrupt in Ashes to Ashes). But they’re a tiny minority of the actual Police forces of the country, most of whom do unpleasant work at antisocial hours in a professional and decent manner. The chance that slipping a couple of hundred quid to the officer who stopped you for a breathalyzer test might work rather than get you arrested for attempting to bribe the officer is so small that you don’t hear of anyone even trying it.

Politicians doing anything they can to maintain their power and prestige or to feather their own nests? After the MPs’ expenses scandal and everything that was already known about how close MPs and party leaders have been to media moguls, it just isn’t news. Sarah Brown organising Rebekah Brooks’ 40th birthday party is not more outrageous now than it was a week ago, just as her husband giving his first Sun interview to the man who had apparently so upset him and his wife over breaking the story of his son’s cystic fibrosis wasn’t. They’re not news – indeed the only new thing is how weird it is that they think they deserve sympathy now for something they were way more forgiving of than most people would have been, or that even a jaded populace would think it right that a serving Prime Minister didn’t dare to take on the might of the press.

So, hard to swallow though it may be, these developments are a big deal that most people will just shrug and say, “Big Deal!” to. Ironically, the people who do care about this stuff are most likely to be amongst the perpetrators or to know or care about them. The public might shrug a bit but the politicians, journalists and other establishment figures want to feel good about themselves and what they do. Enough will feel shame because of the judgement of their peers and their unavoidable blindness to what ordinary people think – unavoidable because they don’t want to sound condescending or cynical (cardinal sins in public life except for those with the flair to carry it off, like, say, Brian Sewell). So, they’ll clean up their act, a bit, make a lot of noise over it and ultimately things will quieten down with a feeling that things have been sorted out, until the next time.