Phone-hacking: A sewer of our own making

Posted on: 27 January 2011 by Alexander Hay

The public's lack of heart and decency made the phone hacking scandal inevitable.

It's foetid and it stinks, but it's all too familiar

The phone hacking scandal continues apace, with yet another career ended yesterday, alongside claims that the Metropolitan Police investigation of what was - after all - a string of criminal offences was so lacking, another constabulary will have to come in to investigate it instead

Elsewhere, several potential victims, ranging from John Prescott and Sienna Miller to any number of other annoyed public figures and celebrities bay for blood vengeance and the government, discredited as it is by its connection to the scandal via Andy Coulson and Rupert Murdoch, is left looking both rather sleazy and and compromised. Not bad for just nine months of government.

So it is easy to point the finger at dodgy private eyes, scheming media conglomerates and unsavoury politicians in this case. But to do so would be wrong, or at least a distraction from the main villains of the piece, the ones who made this all possible, us...

After all, the real reason why the News of the World went to so much effort to break the law and violate people's privacy was not because they were being evil. Craven, maybe. Evil - no. 

Indeed, it's safe to say that Supervillain Rupert Murdoch was not sitting in his secret volcano base, stroking a fluffy white cat, cackling while hacks went through Steve Coogan's voice mail. They were doing it to get stories, the kind that sell newspapers, the kind we like to buy.

Look at your newsagent the next time you walk past. Note what's on the shelves. It's not periodicals dedicated to Platonic dialectics or quantum physics. It's debased, vindictive, shallow celebrity dirt made public. We don't care about what is important, we only wish for scandal and gossip about people we both envy and despise. 

Nor can we in all honesty blame the media in other ways either. The reason why News International wields such power and why this story is so prominent - prominent enough to perhaps interfere with NI's bid to take full ownership of Sky - is because we let it have that power. We have decided the shape of our media, how we communicate with each other and how we conduct public discourse, by who we have chosen as gatekeeper for this purpose. 

Remember, The Guardian loses money and The Economist is read by only 0.9% of the population. By contrast, the News of the World has an estimated readership of 7.7 million, well over 10% of the population. Power corrupts, and if we give power to such a ruthlessly populist and right wing news organisation then we should share some of the blame when they act accordingly

Our lack of interest in the story also damns us. Let's not forget what has happened here: A serious crime has been committed, with the personal communications of a then-Prime Minister sifted through along with many others. The scandal has implicated the current Prime Minister's hand-picked communications director, and so dragged the executive into the mess in doing so. Our response thus-far has been one of apathy or indifference. We can't then complain about the government or the media if we are willing to look the other way when they are involved in a scandal.

The important fact to remember here is that if a celebrity's phone can be hacked, then so can ours. Had any sensitive chats recently? Had any embarrassing voice mails? We all need to have our own private lives, and what the phone-hacking scandal has revealed is that not only are we vulnerable to intrusive criminals, but that it can be easily done and there are people ruthless enough to do it. Not all of them are journalists. What if you were the one being spied upon? Your property, your security and perhaps even your life might be at stake

The knee-jerk reaction to any celebrity claiming their lives are being intruded upon is that they brought it on themselves and that they have no right to complain. In believing this, we are creating an atmosphere where nothing is sacred and we are all vulnerable. Even an exhibitionist fool deserves some privacy or none of us do. 

The phone hacking scandal is a monster of our own making, an end product of our own prurience, hypocrisy, voyeurism and cruelty. We pay no particular attention because it does not seem to impact in any way on our own lives. Or perhaps the simple, ugly truth is that by ignoring it, we demonstrate the very rot in our society that made it possible to begin with. 

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Alexander Hay

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