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A Magazine for Sheffield

Hacking : Shock exclusive: Tabloids morally corrupt

As soon as the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Piers Morgan became accepted moral arbiters of British society, the hacking scandal or something like it became inevitable. What is most surprising about it is our indignation. It's like leaving the nation's diet to the judgement of five-year-olds and being surprised when we all end up with rickets, scurvy or some similar condition not seen since the 17th century. Paul McMullen, former features editor at the News of the World, has defended his actions while at the paper. He has argued repeatedly that breaking the law, including phone hacking and making payments to police officers in return for information, is perfectly acceptable provided it is necessary to get to the truth of a story. Presumably he means stories of unquestionable national importance, such as who some third-rate celebrity is shagging. According to Mr McMullen, only when murder victims and their families were targeted did breaking the law become unacceptable. The fact that we, the general public, only became outraged following the revelations that NoW journalists had hacked into the phones of these victims suggests that we have at least some sympathy with McMullen's view. But this misses the point. As soon as any section of society feels they have the right to act beyond the law, we are in trouble. When that section of society also holds immeasurable power, we are in serious trouble. Don't get me wrong. The very sight of some 'celebrities' has been known to induce in me an irrational sense of impending apocalypse or a sudden urge to run head first into a wall. But being annoying, or talentless, or promiscuous, or even criminal, does not negate a person's entitlement to the protection of the law. And even if it did, I'd sooner place the power to decide when those rights should be withdrawn in the hands of a randomly selected committee of baboons than in the hands of tabloid journalists. That's probably unfair. The average tabloid journalist is marginally more morally complex than the average baboon, but at least baboons don't go out of their way to whip up public emotion into an irrational frenzy of ill-informed condemnation and paranoia. The kind of self-righteous moralising that the tabloid press encourages is destructive. It too often prevents us and our government from dealing rationally with the real issues our society faces. They make it impossible, for example, for any government to develop sensible policies on crime and justice. The government's recent reversal of Ken Clarke's plans for easing the strain on the UK's jam-packed prison system, in the face of tabloid pressure, is a case in point. Admittedly, old Ken didn't do himself any favours with his ill-judged reference to "serious rapes". But notable by their absence are alternative policies for reducing the strain on our hopelessly overcrowded prison system. Tony Blair understood fully the importance of pandering to the tabloids on the issue of crime. But it's time for a new sound bite; tough on crap, tough on the causes of crap. Tabloids have demonstrated their irresponsibility and contempt for the law time and time again. The Sun and the Mirror currently face charges of contempt of court for their coverage of the arrest of Christopher Jeffries, the eccentric but wholly innocent landlord of murder victim Joanna Yates. Even if they are found to have acted within the law, few who read the media coverage of Mr Jeffries' arrest could reasonably argue that it was responsible. Sometimes their actions are downright dangerous. Like the NoW's campaign to name and shame paedophiles, which famously resulted in a paediatrician having to flee her home when it was attacked by seemingly illiterate readers. Only a tabloid could make repugnance at the sexual abuse of children seem unreasonable. Only readers of the NoW could be stupid enough to think that paedophiles possess engraved metal plaques advertising their activities. So good riddance to the NoW. But the tactical demise of one of the worst offenders will not solve the deeper problems that the hacking scandal has exposed. It is good that two inquiries have been announced, but the government must look beyond simply striving to change the behaviour of morally corrupt journalists and police officers. They must also consider how to rebalance the relationship between the tabloids on the one hand, and the public and government on the other, and they must do it without undermining the freedom of the press. No mean feat. But if they fail to address this more fundamental issue, it is only a matter of time before another journalist appears on Channel 4 News to tell us that our country is better off with one less paediatrician. )

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