21 July 2011

Behind the Phone Hacking story

The story about the News of the World illicitly obtaining mobile phone voicemail messages for use in their stories has been around for years, but in the last couple of weeks it has gone stratospheric.

The sudden jump in perceived importance has looked suspicious to some — I was out of the country at the time, but it seems to have started up around the 4th of July, and none of the allegations involved were actually new, though possibly they were better substantiated than previously. (It is a hazard that faces every Private Eye subscriber that stories get mainstream attention only after one is bored of reading about them for years).

On the other hand the timing may be in significant part due to long delays in the criminal investigation; delays that are plausibly suspected to be due to the offenders' close links to senior politicians in all parties and to the police.

There is a air of fake outrage about the whole thing. The facts of the case are reasonably clear, but the attitudes struck don't quite ring true.

Every fictional investigative journalist has his contacts in the police to supply information, often in exchange for gifts. Telephone company contacts are a staple also. Further, the duo of the reporter and the private investigator/hacker describes the protagonists of the epochal Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

That probably isn't the point though. Journalists get a lot of leeway when researching stories about the powerful that is denied them when dredging up sex scandals about celebrities and sob stories from crime victims — the sort of muck-raking that has been the News of the World's core business for a century. The fictional journalists generally resort to the illegal acquisition of information at the dramatic stage in the story where they know roughly what they are going to print but just need a little more, which they can't get any other way. They don't usually just fish for dirt in celebrities' voicemails because it's less work than going outside, as their real-life counterparts seem to have been doing.

All the same, I am far from convinced that what has been going on was restricted to the News International stable, or that it is substantially different from what has happened for decades. Someone else must remember "Benji the Binman", even if bribing servants for gossip is not as widespread an activity today as it was in the 1920s.

Obviously the most important questions are about the political power of the press — the power to topple governments, thwart investigations, shape the public perception of events. And I think that is source of the fakeness, because that is a subject which it is impossible to address rationally in public.

The reason is that even asking the question undermines the assumptions on which the rationale for democracy rests. Citizens have votes because they are autonomous. If voters can be swayed in large numbers by newspapers (as everyone knows is the case), then they are not autonomous at all. To ask who should be able to decide how other people vote, and under what conditions and restrictions, is to produce cognitive dissonance in any democrat.

The trick is to get outraged by the political power the press has, without admitting where that power actually comes from — the malleability of the irresponsible voter. Only when actual malpractice by the press is found can the suppressed outrage be expressed, and then it is multiplied, since at other times the evil of the press is just as real, but cannot be articulated without admitting the basic flaw in democracy. Vince Cable's demise exemplified the previous situation: he could "declare war" on Rupert Murdoch, but he could not satisfactorily explain why. Everyone knew why, but it could not be put into words, and so he was sacked.

Hence the situation today. The malpractice was real, and deplorable, but the outrage is out of proportion, because the true crimes of the press are entirely respectable, and nobody can imagine a way to put a stop to them.

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