Villains and Scapegoats

I’m thinking of buying News of the World in the morning.  If I do, it’ll be the first time in my life, as well as the last.

Now that it’s closing down amid a veritable shitstorm (pardon my language) I keep hearing interesting things about it: a long history and some proud stories.  Apparently it has hitherto been Britain’s best-selling rag.  Yet I don’t even know what it looks like!  Although I must presumably have seen it in the shops, it’s never registered.  Is it so visually cluttered as to draw attention away from its identity?  Could it be because I never realised (until it became news) that the phrase News of the World was a name, rather than a slightly tongue-in-cheek claim or headline?  No matter: that’s neither here nor there.

But the circumstances of its closure are another story, and they’re far from the only villain.  Indeed, I’d go so far as to say not even the chief villain, but at least in part the scapegoat for a holy cow that can’t be touched.  It’s surrounded by villains: others in the press who didn’t get caught, police turning more than just a blind-eye, kowtowing politicians.  And hypocrites: readers who bought it and now revile it, and now prominently the Church of England huffing and puffing over its investment in News Corp.

For the benefit of international readers who may not know the story, the paper is in disgrace over phone-hacking.  Some other methods of collecting information have come into question, but that’s the key one.  That’s illegal, but historically we’ve turned a blind eye as investigative journalists have done work often in the public interest, and indeed pursued serious villains where police lack the will or the resources.  We’ve agonised over grey areas like celebrity tittle-tattle: there’s no defensible reason to intrude on the private life of an entertainer such as a footballer or pop-star, but that kind of thing evidently has a big audience.  What everyone agrees is utterly beyond the pale is intrusion on people in the news for reasons of personal misfortune, headed by the story of interfering with phone calls to Millie Dowler, a schoolgirl who had disappeared and (as subsequently emerged) been murdered.

Actually I wonder if that’s really so indefensible?  The ideal outcome for the paper would’ve been a happy ending: girl found safe and reunited with her family.  Or failing that, crime solved and villain caught, as (eventually) happened.  Who’s to say the paper wasn’t in fact working hard to become the hero of that story by actually solving the case – surely a dream outcome for it?  If its efforts had triumphantly found her, we’d surely have forgiven the dubious means, and we could’ve felt good about buying the paper!

Just as we’ve turned a blind eye to methods deployed by the Telegraph to unearth information on the parliamentary expenses racket.  Public interest!

But not having solved the case, the paper doesn’t have that defence.  And to make it all the more emotive, the Dowler case was recently in the news for other reasons: her murderer[1] was recently convicted, and her family went through a horrendous ordeal in the legal process.  But that was inevitable: our legal system ensures that anyone who gets caught up in it will suffer: victim or villain, or third-party such as a witness.

Or indeed juror.  In another recent case, a juror was jailed for no more crime than being a bit of an idiot.  Truly chilling – and no more than the tip of an iceberg of abuse of jurors!  Of course, the judge in question and the others who run the whole sick game with peoples lives have judicial immunity, which means they’re quite literally above the law no matter how stupid or corrupt they may be.

Chancery may be history, but the spirit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce remains crushingly relevant today.  The Dowler family suffered two terrible ordeals: first, loss of the girl, and second the court case.  Surely some investigator phone-tapping is utterly trivial compared to either of those, yet it’s the paper, not the legal system, that’s in trouble!

What’s going to be the outcome of this case?  The legal system will remain untouched and damage to government is unlikely to escalate.  The police is getting what looks like a well-deserved kicking and heads may possibly even roll, but probably no substantial change.

The press is the main story: government is now setting up two enquiries, which are likely to lead to changes to the regime under which news organisations work.  Fortunately the present government is not such a natural enemy to free speech as its predecessor, so a severe curtailment throwing out the baby with the bathwater isn’t as inevitable as would’ve been the case under The Liar.  But I fear it will hurt the ability of investigative journalists to do good work.  Con-men and fraudsters everywhere will stand to benefit if investigators better resourced than the police have their hands tied.

The other interesting question: how much muck will now emerge concerning similarly-shady practices in other newspapers and media organisations?  They must now be sitting nervously on a huge Prisoner’s Dilemma.

[1] Unless of course an innocent man got convicted.

Posted on July 10, 2011, in free speech, news, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I was thinking yesterday that if I’d been in the country, I’d have bought News of the Screws purely as a souvenir issue. If I could find one, of course – some reports had it that huge numbers of newsagents had announced they wouldn’t stock it.

    I agree that NotW has been scapegoated, but I don’t think I agree with your defence of their actions. Seems to me the only “resource advantage” they had over the police was someone with the brains (or simply time on their hands) to guess the PIN on the girl’s voicemail. Having done so, they could have told the police what it was and let them use the information; but instead they chose to keep it secret, and even (according to some reports I’ve seen) delete messages.

    I felt slightly sick at seeing James Murdoch almost literally throwing his editorial team to the wolves. Practices like that simply don’t evolve in isolation, and the culture that encourages them must have come from above – pressure to keep up circulation, without any balancing pressure to maintain any kind of ethical standards. In other words, Murdoch is at least as guilty as anyone concerned. In Japan, I like to think, he’d have committed seppuku by now.

    Finally: as a trained journalist… I feel I should mention that if I encountered your paragraph about the juror in a story I was editing, I’d probably cross out the whole thing. It comes perilously close to suggesting that a specific judge might have been corrupt. If you do want to say that, then come out and say it properly, don’t pussyfoot around the issue – that’s because, when you pay libel damages, you’ll want to feel you got value for your money. (“Stupid” is okay – that’s an obviously subjective opinion, no libel in that – but “corrupt” is far too specific.)

  2. My defence of them?

    Hmmm …

    I like playing devil’s advocate when everyone else is chorusing a party line. Sheerluck Holmes would take the clues he can get, and ‘phone messages are potential clues. As for deleting them, we’re not told what he deleted (if it was only spam then he’s welcome to my inbox), but a hero of detective fiction wouldn’t want to miss a vital clue because a mailbox was full.

    Of course that’s a purely hypothetical scenario. Not a likely one. If I cared enough about it, I might investigate: see if I could find a track record. If they’ve actually solved other crimes (or mysteries) in the past then it begins to look plausible.

    As for judges, I have no knowledge of the judge in the particular case mentioned. I certainly wouldn’t call him corrupt unless I had clear evidence to back up such an accusation, which I obviously don’t! The point is that a judge can be corrupt yet enjoy complete legal immunity from any sanction against it, and that the system as a whole is *institutionally* corrupt.

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