Echoes of Diana: The public's insatiable appetite for voyeurism has driven journalism to the brink again
Nothing changed after the media, at the behest of the public, hounded Diana into an early grave. Nor will anything change this time around.
Today’s newspapers are awash with the hubris that comes when an especially unpredictable animal that might have eaten you, finds its attention diverted and consumes your companion.
The British press is filled with good reporters and people who deserve more credit than they get for unearthing real wrong-doing in high places. But it also has, across the spectrum, scum-bags and liars. With no meaningful predator or regulator, the only restraining force the British press ever meets is when every decade or so one of their own does something so low – and gets found out – that the public suddenly, and briefly, turns on them. When it happens it is almost impossible to predict who it will turn on or when it will stop.
The press, like the public, are now united against the wrong-doers (as, it should be said, are most of the unfortunate employees of the News of the World who had nothing to do with this scandal and are now jobless). Ordinarily this would be a moment to change things.
Certainly it seems hard to imagine how much lower a cavity could be explored than hacking the phone of a murdered school-girl, in the process giving her parents unimaginable, futile, glimpses of hope. But there has been a similar moment. Fourteen years ago paparazzi photographers who thanks to the print-press had made a parasitical profession for years out of hounding the mother of the future King, chased their subject to her death in a Paris underpass.
Sure she should have been wearing a seat-belt, and sure her driver shouldn’t have been drinking, but the fact that the car was speeding along at all, as her cars had to for years, was only to evade a press that never could get enough of her.
At the time some of us were young enough to believe that things would change – that the press would inevitably rein itself in or be reined in. But nothing happened. After keeping their heads down for a few days and cannily testing the public mood, the press managed to escape censure, even diverting attention by whipping up public feeling against the Royal Family – the very people who were trying to mourn an actually felt loss in private.
Of course the UK papers promised never again to use photographs obtained from the sort of jackals that had just chased the Princess to her death and used their last seconds with her to snap her dying. But they didn’t keep the promise and no one could hold them to it other than the newspaper-buying public. And there lay the problem. Within the year the papers were back publishing the photos from the long-lens photographers and running the photos of the children of the famous in direct contravention of their own promises and their own trade’s supposed strictures.
Now they do the same thing to her children. But it only started up again because the public bought the papers and magazines, soon buying them in such large quantities that whole new shelves of invasive and reality-less journalism boomed.
And nothing changed – not then and not now. The phone-hacking scandal didn’t provoke much public concern when it was only the phones of the famous who were being hacked. And it didn’t provoke much concern when it was only the phones of politicians being hacked. Had it not been for the Milly Dowler hacking, as well as that of the 7/7 victims and the families of dead soldiers, the News of the World would have got away with it. Because the law is too weak to restrain them, the police too corrupt to pursue them and Parliament too cowardly to speak up against them except on the lowest occasions such as this.
But the most important reason why nothing will change is that, much as they refuse to admit it, and much as they shake their head in disapproval and denial, a large chunk of the British public have in recent years developed an insatiable appetite for unending invasion into the private lives of the rich and famous, and, when there weren’t enough of them to satisfy the urge, the poor and barely known as well.
Today some of Britain’s most venerable broadsheets, desperate for a piece of this market, have followed the scent in a race to the bottom, developing websites and pages which would not shame the most ravenous celebrity tat magazine.
It is the public that is driving the media and the media responds to the public. Other than the News of the World, most of the press will again succeed in escaping any censure. But the public escape censure every time. And just as after the death of the Princess the guilty public responded with swift exoneration and self-pity, so this time the people who have fuelled the feast will evade even basic self-examination.
With the public square empty, an unquestioned public and a press with no meaningful predator, the wheel may slow for a few days, but give it a short time and it will crank back into gear. And down we’ll go again.
Douglas Murray is the Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society and author of 'Neoconservatism: Why We Need It'
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