Posts Tagged ‘Leveson’

Taming Tabloid Tittle Tattle

Yesterday I took part in the Taming Tabloid Tittle Tattle debate at the brilliant Battle of Ideas at the Barbican. Roy Greenslade and I, loosely defending the right to celebrity privacy, took on Jo Phillips and Patrick Hayes, arguing the case for unrestricted press freedom. I say loosely because what emerged through the very wide ranging discussion was an understanding across the board of the complex nuances of the argument. Phone hacking, naked royals and plebgate were all deftly handled by the able panel, and the ghost of Jimmy Savile was predictably present at the table. I won’t attempt to encapsulate the entire argument- the Battle of Ideas will be posting the full debate on their youtube channel in due course- but a few points are worth drawing out.

Jo Phillips illustrated the tabloid obsession with celebrity when she spoke about her experiences working on the media strategy for Live8 in 2005, and the challenges of striking the balance between focussing press attention on the stars and the rather more serious messages motivating the campaign. The charities involved were concerned that too much attention was being paid to the celebrities. But of course, celebrity sells. It was the stars that gave the campaign its extraordinary reach around the world.

Celebrities are the gods of a secular age. This isn’t driven by the editors, it is driven by the readers who will buy extra issues in their thousands when a particular star appears on the cover. Although the revelations of Leveson may have caused editors to think twice about publishing stories such as the recent Kate Middleton pictures, they seem to have had almost no discernible impact on the reading habits of the Great British public themselves. It was ever thus- I told the story of one of the old ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 19th Century that published an illustration of ‘life on the moon’, selling 20,000 copies. When the image was inevitably outed as a fake, the title in question was able to print another 40,000 copies due to popular demand. Truth, and ethics, have rarely been the determining factor in our buying choices when it comes to newspapers.

But do we really believe that fame and privacy are incompatible? Have our fabulously wealthy, pampered celebrities entered into a Faustian pact? There are, of course, those celebrities that pursue fame at any cost. It is harder to have sympathy with those that happily profit from the public airing of their dirty laundry: the recent playing out of the Alex Reid/ Chantelle Houghton break up springs to mind. But others chose to manage their fame in a more private, dignified way- as a sometimes wanted, sometimes unwanted, side effect of a career in the public eye. Leveson has revealed the depths to which certain tabloid journalists have sunk in pursuit of sensation. Even those that believe in the unqualified good of a free press must be troubled by Sienna Miller’s account of being pursued down a dark alley by a group of camera wielding men, or the treatment of Charlotte Church’s mother by News of the World after her attempted suicide. This is not simply publishing stories that the individuals concerned might prefer to keep under wraps. In numerous incidents what is being described is concerted campaigns of intimidation and bullying.

Patrick Hayes highlighted the emphasis placed on intrusion into celebrity lives when, in his view, this is a phenomenon common to all of us in the modern world, citing the increasing infringement on private life by the state. Perhaps tabloid intrusion into the private lives of public figures has set a precedent for the way in which we all live now. These are two sides of the same coin: if we are concerned about one, we have to be concerned about the other. Hence the imposition on our privacy by the state is hardly a compelling argument for allowing tabloids to disclose so much of celebrities’ lives to us- unless the former is viewed as an unqualified good.

Roy Greenslade offered the concluding comments, arguing that, as a national newspaper editor, there were occasions when he was faced with compelling reasons to step outside a normal ethical framework. He believes that when a story is genuinely in the national interest, it is justified for a newspaper to do whatever is necessary to uncover it- even if that means breaking the law. But the end must justify the means. And when tawdry but ultimately inconsequential stories about Max Mosley’s sex life traumatise his family to the extent that his son commits suicide, it is rather difficult to argue that anyone is served by the means.

A Major Record Deal

At Borkowski towers we took in John Major’s statesmanlike Leveson testimony with bated breath, gathered around a single laptop like blond-mopped 30s tots listening timorous but resolute to the velvety tones of Churchill on the wireless, the glow of the screen illuminating our haggard faces like a ray of hope stealing through the curtains of ignorance which mask the grubby windows of press transparency.

Eyes locked in half-closed intensity, hair cemented into the iron permanence usually seen, nay felt, only in the ancient standing stones of the Earth’s wild corners, he dids’t bestride the narrow courtroom like a colossus. His views on civil service-led regulation were heartfelt, his words on the plurality of the media erudite, his blue-wash tie-shirt combo possessed of all the gravity of a pre-Veritas Robert Kilroy Silk.

After about 5 minutes, we came round and remembered that John Major’s face, demeanour and clothing repel the human attention span so effectively that his aides have to wear protective eyewear when preparing him for speeches. We thought we’d help the poor chap out with some alternative visuals better suited to a fickle and feckless 2012 audience. Behold the result.