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.