Notes From the Margins…

Morbid Symptoms: Phonehacking, Celebrities and the Press

  • July 20, 2011
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As was to be expected, there was a lot of strategic humility on display in Parliament yesterday by both the Murdochs and la Brooks –  replete with softened curls to remove any unfortunate associations with Medusa or a Harry Potter witch.

The arrogance was mostly absent from all three, and there was a great deal of shock, moral indignation and regret at the News of the World’s decision to listen in on Milly Dowler’s phone – a decision that needless to say, was nothing to do with any of them.

The political implications of this scandal are clear: the inordinate influence of the Murdoch press over the two main parties; the overlap between his newspapers and the Tory party in particular; the corrupt relationship between News International and the Met; the implications for democratic practice of newspapers listening in on politicians’ phones.

But there is another dimension to the whole affair which has sometimes been overlooked.  The original cause of the phonehacking scandal concerned the revelations of NOTW’s hacking into the phones of celebrities such as Sienna Miller and Hugh Grant, not politicians or murdered schoolgirls.

The motive behind this behaviour was absolutely straightforward: to sell newspapers by giving its readership an exclusive – the sleazier the better.

It can’t be said that the NOTW was performing a public service through such activity, but it was certainly giving its readership what it wanted.  Nor was it the only tabloid for whom peering into the intimate lives of famous people – particularly their bedrooms – has been a source of profit.

Even the Daily Mail, for all its repressed Middle England morality, can rarely hold back from examining the sheets of  the rich and famous.  Today’s Mail contains the crucial information that ‘loverat’ footballer (C)Ashley Cole has just ‘bedded’ a lingerie model, accompanied by a photograph of said model with very little lingerie.

It has always been thus.

Gossip is often tempting and sometimes irresistible, particularly when sex is involved.

But we now live in an age in which the boundaries between private and public have been trampled down, and celebrity has become a neurotic and almost pornographic public obsession, driven by an unhealthy combination of adoration, desire, envy, wish fulfilment – and hatred.

Newsagents and supermarket magazine racks are filled with stories about dumpings, ‘romps’ and shaggings; with photos of bleached and pallid stars in sunglasses going shopping or captured on beaches by remorseless paparazzi who focus in on every sagging buttock, wrinkle,  blemish or roll of fat to show that these gods and goddesses are really just like us – and sometimes worse.

Celebrities sometimes play this game too, flogging their intimate revelations to the gossip magazines or alerting the press to their presence in order to keep themselves out there, boost their image, get a makeover, take revenge on a cheating partner or simply make some more cash.

If the media has been intrusive, such intrusions have sometimes been welcomed – and not only by A list celebrities.

Reality tv programmes like Big Brother in which ‘ordinary people’ humiliate themselves and invite viewers to peer at aspects of their lives that would be better kept hidden; the dysfunctional people and borderline psychotics who participate in the bearbaiting spectacles of Jeremy Kyle, are all testaments to a ubiquitous  media-drenched culture, in which fame – however obtained – has become an ultimate aspiration.

This love/hate relationship directed towards those who achieve it is evident in the bizarre but almost certainly iconic I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, in which B list celebrities subject themselves to ritual humiliation for the delight and titillation of their viewers – and reboost their profile in the process.

The underlying bitterness and contempt that so often underpins the cult of celebrity was visible once again during Steve Coogan’s hilarious ‘you come across as  a risible person’ assault on the former NOTW Features editor Paul McMullan on Newsnight last week, which you can enjoy here:

Amoral doesn’t even begin to describe McMullan, who is clearly the kind of character that most of us are only likely to come across accidentally by lifting a rock and would prefer to leave there.

But what was striking about his ridiculous defence of his ‘journalism’ was his obvious loathing for Coogan, and for all the celebrities that his paper had once exploited – and sometimes been exploited by.

McMullan clearly did not see Coogan or anyone else in his position as individuals with a right to privacy, and took it for granted that his newspaper was entitled to  pore over every aspect of their lives, as he accurately and shamelessly admitted, to titillate his readers, and many of his readers undoubtedly felt the same way.

So let’s by all means enjoy the downfall of what Coogan rightly described as a ‘ misogynistic, xenophobic, single parent hating, asylum seeker hating’ newspaper like the NOTW.

Let us denounce  News International, and the bent politicians and the bent cops who colluded with them.  But we might also remember, when we watch the ‘darkest recesses’ of the Murdoch empire ‘laid bare’,  as the Newsnight interviewer put it, that the public also bears some responsibility for its decadence and amorality.

The NOTW and its competitors gave their readers a product that they wanted, or at least which they could not be bothered to find an alternative to.

In doing so they transformed their readers into permanent gawkers,  staring at celebrities like bystanders at a car crash.

Milly Dowler and now, it seems, the 9/11 victims,  were famous for being dead, but they were still ‘celebrities’ and that is why News International believed that it had the ‘right’ to follow them even into the afterlife – all in the public interest.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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