Hacks versus celebrities

James Turley argues that a whole cultural-ideological system needs to be overcome

The principal interest of the ongoing News of the World phone-hacking scandal is less the story itself as what it exposes about society more generally.

Sure, the drip-drip of criminal accusations against one of the world’s most powerful media conglomerates has the trappings of a classic conspiracy thriller - think All the president’s men transplanted to Wapping - but the remarkable facts of the case consist not in those acts of tabloid subterfuge that happen to fall the wrong side of the law, but the manner in which the cover-up has dragged everyone from the Tory government to the Metropolitan Police, to Murdoch’s tabloid rivals into the swamp.

Now that News International has agreed to negotiate settlements with a number of individuals in its high-profile, but carefully hedged apology and now that the first such payment - a cool £100,000 to film star Sienna Miller, has been arranged - it is worth examining the case from a different perspective: that of the victims.

We can divide these into two broad categories - political victims and celebrity victims. There are, it seems, considerably more of the latter than the former; and, to a certain extent, they are all much of a muchness to the News of the World, for whom a sensational scandal is a sensational scandal, whoever is at the bottom end of it. (Perhaps it is no accident that suspicions were first raised by the royal family, the most important institution to exist in the murky netherworld between ‘celeb’ culture and high politics.)

The political figures targeted are unsurprisingly largely from a Labour or left background. John Prescott has been the most vocal, in his typical blustery fashion, but Tessa Jowell is also on the list for payouts. To their left, George Galloway - who has previously pursued damages against the Mirror in Robert Maxwell’s days in charge, and more recently TheDaily Telegraph - is attempting to bring his case to court. The date is set for early 2012; that is how long Murdoch has to match Galloway’s price or otherwise cobble together a defence. Likewise, Tommy Sheridan is very keen to know exactly how the News of the World came upon details of his private life, whose publication ultimately resulted in his jail sentence for perjury.

Given the sociopathically reactionary character of Murdoch’s gutter press, that it has targeted lefts for smear campaigns is hardly front-page news, as it were. While Galloway and Sheridan are clearly enough victims of concerted attempts to destroy their political careers - in the latter case successful - the interest in Prescott is at least partly an interest in him as a public figure (and, indeed, a political ally of the Murdoch empire through his participation in the Blair regime).

So perhaps more interesting, paradoxically, is the ‘celebrity’ factor - which raises the attendant, although ultimately false, dilemma of free speech versus the right to privacy. The problem of privacy is highlighted very clearly by the phone-hacking affair - it should be pretty obvious to any observer that somebody listening into your voicemail messages is a violation of your privacy.

The dimension of free speech is more obviously implicated in another, related, slow-burning legal scandal - that of the super-injunction, whereby a court has the power to order the press not to report on an issue under legal dispute, and also not to report the existence of the injunction. (The writer and comedian, Charlie Brooker, likened it to being gagged, and then having a bag put on one’s head to obscure the gag.)

The emergence of this practice - by its nature obscure - is clearly linked to the massive expansion of digital media, whereby the existence of innumerable smaller media outlets in a kaleidoscopic variety of legal jurisdictions makes older methods of suppressing a story more or less obsolete. A paper merely has to report that, say, a footballer has obtained an injunction to prevent the revelation of an extramarital affair, and the internet rumour mill will rapidly whittle down the list of candidates to one.

It has been widely reported that the majority of these injunctions are, indeed, brought by well-known individuals with respect to concealing embarrassing aspects of their private lives from the wider population. In particular, the profile of the typical super-injunction-seeker is a middle-aged male concealing his infidelity. Infamously, one such man to own up to the practice was Andrew Marr, a BBC journalist who does not himself refrain from probing the personal lives of interviewees. The hypocrisy is breathtaking - once it became clear that the story was going to break anyway, Marr came clean with what amounted to a grovelling apology to his profession.

The double standards of BBC hacks, however, is hardly the least edifying aspect of this whole business. Most infamously, the Dutch oil company, Trafigura, obtained a super-injunction suppressing the publication of details of an internal memo, which appeared to confirm accusations that a Trafigura-owned ship had dumped thousands of tonnes of toxic waste in heavily populated areas of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.

So very serious matters are entangled with ‘celebrity culture’, which everywhere has the effect of effacing the distinction between the personal and the political. On the one hand, the phone-hacking scandal reproduces the tendency for big settlements and libel verdicts against the gutter press to be awarded to well-heeled celebrities, and thus obscure the violently reactionary attacks against political figures less materially able to fight back (in Galloway’s case, it is a most felicitous use of the Press TV/Talksport shilling that allows him to buck the trend); the explosion of the News International case has at least partly exposed this dimension, but it will be once again buried, as Murdoch pays off the likes of Sienna Miller.

On the other hand, the preponderance of celebrity scandals in the super-injunction phenomenon obscures the ability of the obscenely wealthy to buy silence - and silence about the silence - concerning their even more obscene crimes. Andrew Marr is a more identifiable figure than Trafigura; he gets more column inches for possibly fathering a bastard child than all the thousands of victims of an oil company’s act of chemical class warfare put together.

The basic functioning of celebrity culture can be summed up easily with another example. Among the so-called ‘women’s weeklies’ on newsstands everywhere, there are two main types: those that deal in typically grotesque ‘true-life stories’, and those that deal in celebrity gossip. There is one in particular which aspires to cover both in one easy package: its sublime Freudian slip of a tagline is “real life and celebs”. Celebrity culture is an ideology whose purpose is to introduce a separation between figures in the public eye and, precisely, ‘real life’.

It provides the bulk of front pages for mass market tabloids, and indeed a substantial amount of copy for the slightly more upmarket likes of the Mail (as well as daily free sheets). This penetration into the mass media gives celebrity stories a repetitive rhythm and narrative logic. It does not particularly matter that the vast bulk are essentially just made up, or at best the result of wild speculation. It certainly does not matter that, whatever their talents on a football pitch, movie set or recording studio, most celebrities are not particularly interesting individuals. The point is to seize on any scrap of biographical information and turn it into a narrative.

This is the both the grain of truth and the major flaw in those apologies for tabloid gossip that state, broadly, that celebrities have chosen to be in the public eye, and tabloid intrusion is part of the job. The truth of it is that being a celebrity is in a sense a job in itself - we are long past the point where it became possible to be famous simply for being famous - Katie Price’s long-expired career as a glamour model barely factors into her aggressive entrepreneurship of her own notoriety. The flaw is that celebrity culture continues in a manner basically indifferent to what its objects actually do, so in no sense can famous individuals be held responsible for its content. The young Britney Spears no doubt sought stardom. She did not seek to end up the protagonist of a protracted tabloid adaptation of The yellow wallpaper.

The cannibalistic logic of celebrity culture infects ever more spheres of life. Its colonisation of mainstream bourgeois politics is more or less complete - bourgeois parties and politicians currently lack much room for manoeuvre, thanks to a lack of pressure from below and an abundance of pressure from above, so differences are invented through the deployment of charismatic personalities. Here, one need only mention Barack Obama.

It also makes restrictions on free speech inevitable, by turning the private lives of individuals into a source of profit. The News of the World and its competitors will always be involved in a guerrilla struggle against the great and the good over which means it may employ to obtain which grubby details; injunctions, super-injunctions (and now ‘hyper-injunctions’) are the inevitable result, as are tighter restrictions on the press, all of which will be exploited in due course by the likes of Trafigura.

It is fruitless to try and seek a legal ‘balance’ between privacy and free speech. It is quite legitimate for the press to use every means it can to expose corruption, mendacity and worse on the part of our rulers and the class they represent. They should be able to hide nothing. Sienna Miller, Hugh Grant and the like should be able to conduct their personal affairs in peace (as should Tommy Sheridan); but the reason they cannot has nothing to do with the availability or otherwise of legal sanctions, but is rather a function of a whole cultural-ideological system which needs to be overcome.

Partly, this means destroying the power of media moguls, which is in any case a necessary part of fighting for democracy, thus decapitating the celeb apparatus; but it also means the working class and the broad masses becoming active producers of their own culture, diametrically opposed to the insubstantial trashiness of tabloid gossip.