A share of the blame

Like a lot of other people, I'm enjoying the furore around the News International phone hackings scandal. It isn't just schadenfreude; we've tolerated the gutter press for so long that it seemed like an inescapable and unfortunate part of the fabric of Britain. Now, with a fair wind, the Murdoch empire could come crashing down. Bring popcorn.

But one important fact seems to be widely overlooked. Surely the people who used to read the News of the World, and who still read The Sun, the Sunday Sport, The Mirror, not to mention the colourful cheap women's magazines, and other publications like it, are equally to blame? It's their insatiable appetite for gossip that underpins the entire sordid affair. In the same way that kerb-crawlers are considered law-breakers, creating the demand that fuels the supply, shouldn't the same apply to customers of these newspapers? You might even say that kerb-crawlers have a lot less to be ashamed of - at least there are usually consenting adults involved. No-one consented to having their phones hacked.

Of course, all this shines a light on the British psyche. All countries have their equivalent of the red-tops, but ours seems painfully successful by comparison. It really doesn't bear close inspection. It'll be interesting to see whether the demand for (and supply of) salacious gossip declines once the dust settles on this current debacle. Only good can come of this.


Anonymous said…
You are way off base here. We have a major newspaper group hacking the voicemails of thousands of individuals, in at least one case interfering with a murder investigation. We the police not upholding the law and taking bribes. We have a press regulator that has not effectively intervened. We have politicians not acting for fear of being targeted by the newspapers, effectively allowing themselves to be blackmailed. We have political agendas being set by rich and powerful unelected individuals.

And you say an "insatiable appetite for gossip" underpins the entire affair. We all like a bit of gossip and I would not describe red-top readers' appetite for gossip as insatiable. But even if it was, liking gossip is not illegal, immoral or unethical. Gossip can be supplied in a legal manner.

There are lots of guilty parties here, but the general public is not one of them.
Phil Whitehouse said…
I agree that the organisations you've listed are directly responsible for their actions - and I hope they'll pay dearly for them. But why should the people who created the demand escape guilt free?

We're not talking about gossip of the idle variety here. We're talking about a consistent, increasing pattern of invading privacy, literally broadcasted as far and as wide as possible without any concern for the people being hurt. None of which would've happened if it hadn't been rewarded with increased sales. These readers are an essential part of the equation.

I think there's an argument that the pursuit of gossip becomes immoral the moment you choose to ignore how it was obtained, and unethical when the pain caused to others is similarly ignored in favour of the brief pleasure gained.
Anonymous said…
"...there's an argument that the pursuit of gossip becomes immoral the moment you choose to ignore how it was obtained, and unethical when the pain caused to others is similarly ignored in favour of the brief pleasure gained." Certainly. But this is true of anything. Replace "gossip" by "cheap food", "cheap training shoes", or "cheap electronic goods" and the statement remains equally true. This brings up the interesting question of how complicit the consumer is in the production of goods.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if you took sugar in your tea, then you were complicit in the use of slave labour. Sugar production then required the use of slaves. If you used sugar then you were either negligently ignorant or directly complicit in the practice of slavery. Things are not so simple nowadays: companies know people generally prefer goods to be legally and ethically produced, so they engage in a combination of ethical/legal production and hiding unethical/illegal production.

As consumers we engage in a combination of taking responsibility for what we purchase and deferring that responsibility to the legal and regulatory systems. By buying cheap meat I create a demand for cheap meat and an incentive for producers to produce meat in the cheapest possible way. But as a consumer I assume that certain minimal standards of animal welfare exist and are enforced. If I believe those standards are not high enough I have a number of options: I can campaign for stricter standards, I can boycott companies that I believe have lower standards that others, I can buy organic meat, or I could become vegetarian. But whatever my choices as a consumer I make them in the general expectation that the law is enforced, the regulator does their job, and that politicians are not in the pockets of the food companies. I make similar assumptions and decisions when I buy electronic goods, clothes, other mass produced goods, or indeed newspapers.

The general public is well-aware that newspapers have unsavoury practices, but even so, expects certain standards and certainly expects the law to be obeyed and enforced.

I agree that the public is not entirely blame-free, but the level of blame is far outweighed by those who have broken the law or failed in their duty to protect the public.
Phil Whitehouse said…
Good points all round - couldn't agree more.