by Barry Edelson


The Tabloids Reign Supreme

Sad to say, it's hereditary


Shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer, Dennis Potter, the iconoclastic British dramatist who created "Pennies from Heaven" and "The Singing Detective", gave a famous interview with the equally renowned author and television host Melvyn Bragg. In between swigs of liquid morphine, Potter referred to his cancer as "Rupert", and said that if he only had the energy, the one remaining task he had left to accomplish in his life was to find Rupert Murdoch, and kill him. That was in 1994. Imagine how many lives and reputations might have been spared had he actually been able to fulfill his dying wish.

It is difficult to suppress a feeling of unbridled glee at the sudden and unexpected travails of Murdoch and his corporate web. But it is also difficult to imagine that the phone-hacking scandal now roiling the newsphere will do much to slow down his unearthly ambition, or to substantially or permanently weaken the vast media empire he has built on a foundation of so-called journalism of the most despicable variety. His purchase of BSkyB, the satellite network, may have been forestalled for the moment, but lest anyone think that politicians will miraculously cease to seek the favor of the popular press, or will not at some point in the future find it in their personal interests to revive that deal or some other equally lucrative one for Murdoch and his blood-spattered stockholders, you would do well to disabuse yourselves of that notion. Murdoch's protestations of innocence and humility are no more to be believed than if they were uttered by some craven elected person scrambling to save his skin in the wake of some untoward revelation or other. It is a temporary setback. The machine he built is too successful, and populated by too many incurably driven individuals, to be derailed for long.

Moreover, the public's appetite for the products of Murdoch's psychopathic imagination is apparently bottomless. What is most disturbing about the hacking business is that the British reader was hardly bothered by it at all when its targets were first thought to have been only the rich and famous. No matter if a member of the royal family's privacy is breached; it's the people's right to know such things. The personal business of celebrities is likewise deemed to reside in the public domain, given that they are a species apart from the horde of ordinary humanity by virtue of having attained fame and fortune. Only when the phone of a missing 13-year-old girl was found to have been hacked, in a cruel manipulation of her family in a time of unimaginable emotional agony, did the scandal gain any traction in the wider media. The feelings of the upper crust be damned, but people were shocked — SHOCKED! — to discover that the News of the World was callously indifferent not only to the lives of the high and mighty, but to those of ordinary folks as well. The British newspaper imbiber, who somehow imagined that his daily titillation was at the expense only of those members of upper classes who inherently deserved all the abuse that the press could mete out to them, was engaged in an extraordinary exercise of cognitive dissonance, because the pages of his chosen rag are crammed with outrageous stories about anyone and everyone who comes within the sights of the industry's rapacious editors and reporters. Are we supposed to believe that readers never noticed that unearthing the nasty details of people's private lives through any means necessary is the tabloid's stock-in-trade? As John Oliver said on "The Daily Show" last week, "Do you know how hard it is to disgrace a British tabloid?"

Americans who have ever watched an interview conducted by a British reporter with a member of the government have no doubt been taken aback by the brazenness of the questioning. There is none of the veneer of respect shown for the office, if not the individual, that is characteristic of American journalistic protocol, even in this Foxified era of journalistic decline. The attitude of the typical British journalist towards members of the ruling elite is one of unbridled contempt. In the absence of a Constitution like ours that establishes press freedoms, not only conceptually but legally, as a necessary check against the depredations of those in power, the British press operates on the thin pretext of the public's "right to know". Under that virtual non-standard, there is no display of disrespect or disregard that is beyond the bounds of common sympathy. Any path of inquiry, any salacious detail, regardless of its relationship to the truth or its effect on those reported upon, is within the scope of what passes for serious journalism. The so-called gutter press (or "sewer press", as Christopher Hitchens more aptly puts it) is merely a darker shade of this practice, and the lines between them are so often blurred as to be indistinguishable. The victims of investigative reporting are not just those whose decisions affect public policy, but any ordinary persons who happen to have done something or, even worse, been the victim of someone else, which renders them of passing interest to an insatiable press and its readership. Thus the cynicism, which (to a great extent rightly) is directed toward the government and its minions, tarnishes the whole of humankind. What we see in the pages of the Sun, News of the World and sundry other Murdoch publications that litter the English-speaking world, is a tableau worthy of Hieronymous Bosch, in which man's every folly and depravity are depicted as the sum-total of the human experience.

The tabloid as we know it long predates Murdoch himself, but the coarsening and broadening of the form has been greatly accelerated under his ruthless control. The sort of reporters who are drawn this world tend to come from the far edge of the psychopathic spectrum, as does, presumably, their leader himself. Anyone who has had to interact professionally with reporters from the baser of Murdoch's enterprises (the New York Post, for example), can testify that, even in a profession whose most honorable practitioners are highly aggressive and confrontational, tabloid reporters are a breed apart. They have a narrative in their minds to which all stories must adhere, and as such have no interest in the truth as an objective reality. They are interested only in the truth as they have already determined it, a truth based upon a view of mankind as disreputable and irredeemable as the image they see in the mirror. They are utterly indifferent to any suffering that may result as a consequence of their published stories. Indeed, in the course of an interview, they visibly gain pleasure from causing discomfort. Every single piece of reporting has as its object the validation of the premise that everyone is rotten to the core. Token stories of valor, generosity or decency are printed solely to provide juxtaposition for the common scum, and the hero's inevitable fall from grace is anticipated with sadistic pleasure. How could anyone find satisfaction in the conduct of such a profession, except by feeding an addiction to human carnage?

When reporters see their bosses rubbing elbows with prime ministers and their cohorts, the very individuals who are the targets of their most vicious attacks, each cravenly seeking the other's favor and protection, what are they to think? What else could they conclude but that we are all the same: the politicians, celebrities, regular people and the journalists themselves, all swimming together in a noxious brew of bad behavior, which makes everyone fair game for the meat grinder that puts a king's ransom, almost literally, into the pockets of men like Rupert Murdoch. Thus does society as a whole grow too corrupted and morally weak to notice its complicity in its own demise.

The tabloid press that got its start exploiting class resentment in England in the 19th century has found a firm foothold in this country in print, over the airwaves and online. This is Murdoch's evil genius: he recognized years ago that countries like America and his native Australia were marked deeply by differences of race, income and education, and would therefore be receptive to the variety of trash-peddling in which he specializes. Perhaps because we are a nominally classless society, America has a morbid fascination with those that are not, and the British royal family has long been a special focus of that curiosity. The more we tut-tut at the misdeeds of the less self-controlled scions of the royal household, the more we fawn over Kate Middleton's wedding gown, or beatify the late princess-in-law, the more vulnerable we are to the maelstrom of the Murdoch machine, which is intent on providing daily evidence that we are all as miserable as its founder. Given that there is no shortage of folly, hypocrisy and depravity in the world, the presses will continue to pour out their vitriol, and the foolish, hypocritical and depraved readership will continue to guzzle it. As Jane Austen's Mr. Bennett wryly observed two centuries ago, "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" Indeed. And the rest was history.

July 23, 2011



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