On a beautiful Sunday morning at Brideshead Castle, Sebastian Flyte breaks off a desultory conversation about religion and morality because he wants to immerse himself in the scandal sheets: “He turned back to the pages of the News of the World and said, ‘Another naughty scout-master … oh, don’t be a bore, Charles, I want to read about a woman in Hull who’s been using an instrument … thirty-eight other cases were taken into consideration in sentencing her to six months—golly!”
As my colleague Anne Applebaum pointed out elsewhere in Slate, in his essay “Decline of the English Murder,” George Orwell knew exactly how to set the scene for a pleasurable reverie on human wickedness:
It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. … In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
Orwell’s answer—”Naturally, about a murder”—differs significantly from Evelyn Waugh’s preference for sexual deviance. And you’ll perhaps notice that both authors, or their characters, are consciously “slumming” it by picking up a newspaper that was intended for the less-literate elements of the proletariat. But for decades, in fact since well back into the mid-Victorian epoch, the News of the World was the winning formula for the depiction of crime and squalor and vice. The brilliance of the formula lay in its venerable hypocrisy; actually in two distinct kinds of venerable hypocrisy. First, the sad news of human frailty was not bugled with lurid and sensational tactics. It was laid out more in sorrow than in anger, published on a Sabbath day that was still full of legal and moral force, and strove to show how easy was the fall from grace. Second, and in keeping, its reporters and editors took a very high moral tone. They would take the investigation of a brothel, say, only so far. Once a certain point of complicity had been reached, there would appear a phrase that became celebrated both in print and in court. “At this stage,” the reporter would solemnly intone, “I made an excuse and left.” This degree of detachment was thought essential to the proper conduct of business.
Hand it to Rupert Murdoch and his minions: They got hold of the solid old “News of the Screws” or “Nudes of the World” and made it into a paper where the question was not how low can poor human nature sink, but rather is there anything, however depraved, that a reporter cannot be induced to do? Admittedly, this question is not a new one in the folklore of Fleet Street. Describing the press pack on assignment in his masterpiece Scoop, it was Evelyn Waugh who noticed one of their tightest mutual bonds: “Together they had loitered on many a doorstep and forced an entry into many a stricken home.” As a lowly cub, I remember being told always to take along a partner if it was planned to visit the recently violated and bereaved. “They’ll always offer a cup of tea, so you go in the kitchen with them, and then your mate’ll have nice time to grab the family photographs off the mantelpiece.”
Of course, the daily handful of people on whom these heartless intrusions are visited are highly upset and distraught. But the opposite effect is produced on the many millions of people who are not thus violated and who hotly desire to read about those who are. When reporters speak so easily of the great influence exerted on politicians by Murdoch’s papers, what they really mean is by Murdoch’s readers. His only real knack lies in knowing what they want. And what they want are invasions of privacy—and plenty of them. (In Michael Frayn’s Fleet Street novel The Tin Men, which is the only rival to Scoop, focus groups of consumers were set up to answer questions about their tabloid needs. In the case of an air crash, would they prefer to read about children’s toys being found in the wreckage? If a woman had been assaulted, should she be best described as having been found with or without her underwear? Yes, dear reader, you are a hypocrite, too.)
The comparative fallout of the scandal on Britain’s two main political parties is probably fairly even. Successive Labour governments maintained much the longer and warmer relationship with Murdoch, while Conservative Party leader David Cameron did employ a former News of the World editor who is implicated in the phone-hacking scandal in a senior government media position (and Cameron has, aside from professional politics, himself pursued no career except that of a PR man for TV companies). The most neglected aspect of the entire imbroglio is this. Most of the allegations of shady practice against the Murdoch octopus have come from another newspaper. Under the editorship of Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian has been engaged in breaching an old unspoken code of the British press racket—that “dog does not eat dog.” The prime minister’s office showed itself incapable of conducting an investigation; the courts and the prosecutors appeared to have no idea of the state of the law, and the police were too busy collecting their tip-off fees. Admittedly, it isn’t usually the job of these institutions to keep the press honest. (Indeed, I could swear that I read somewhere that the whole concept was the other way about.) Still, it’s encouraging to record that when the press needed a housecleaning, there was a paper ready to take on the job.
Over the same period, Rusbridger and the Guardian formed the London end of the media consortium that tried to impose some element of sorting and priority on the mess that WikiLeaks had become. Now here was serious disclosure—some of it gained by invasion of privacy—on matters of real importance. What strikes the eye about the material in the News of the World is its relentless nullity: when cruel things happen to unimportant people, or when sordid things happen to famous people. Prurience and voyeurism supply the only energy. A sort of Gresham’s Law begins to drive the news, or rather to drive out actual information by means of huge waves of mawkishness and populism. In this sense, too, a lot hangs on the outcome of the battle between the Murdochian and Guardian worldviews.