ALASTAIR Campbell has been giving the Leveson inquiry into press ethics the benefit of his wisdom.
The performance was one for the connoisseurs, I think, with righteous indignation counting as what music fans would call a bonus track. The man who spent his Downing Street years working behind the scenes to extract the most favourable possible coverage from the media wanted us all to know how disgusted he is with the media. This lot, he ventured, don't deserve the freedom of the press.
Since some of the people Campbell had in mind might not be at liberty indefinitely, the point probably counts as academic. There is an odd sort of delight, though, in hearing Tony Blair's former spin doctor remark that newspapers have been guilty of "taking a fact and using that to promote that agenda, and it turns out the fact is inaccurate ..." Some of those "facts" have been known to turn up in dossiers, sometimes war-related, and some of those dossiers have carried a government's seal of approval. By sheer bad luck – obviously – the "facts" therein have turned out to be rubbish. But let's not interrupt an expert witness.
Much of what Campbell told Leveson is probably true. The definition of a story, in newspaper terms, has become as morally compromised as the methods used to get a story. The definition of the public interest has become as fantastical as the self-regard of certain tabloid editors. It goes something like this: if what they print is read by millions then the public's interest is identical to the public interest. A story can then be secured by any means necessary.
It helps that there is an odd, incestuous relationship between celebrities, people who dote on celebrity, and those who shape the cult of celebrity. Who takes responsibility? The big name (and agent) who tries to "manage" the tabloids? The customers who lap up the tabloids? Or the editors who conclude they can make or break anyone in the public eye?
Campbell failed to address two issues. One is that the vile behaviour identified at the News Of The World was never a riddle: it was illegal. That's why, at the time of writing, there have been 17 arrests. Finally the police are doing the job they should have done to begin with. All the agonising over ethics and the depths to which some people will stoop for the sake of so-called careers is near-irrelevant.
The second, paradoxical point: is phone hacking – or surveillance, or misrepresentation, or any of the other nasty tactics – wrong in all circumstances? I can't think of a journalist, of any variety, who could not imagine a situation in which breaking the law was justified. What happens when it's the only way to secure proof against a monster? Hence the old problem: the public interest and who defines it.
In that regard, Leveson's inquiry is an odd affair. It has given the impression, for one thing, that all victims of the tabloids' attentions are alike simply because they have been subjected to the same methods. But there is a world of difference between the McCann or Dowler families and celebrities whose affairs are handled by PR consultants, whose agents do deals with editors, and who sell their wedding snaps in exchange for favourable coverage.
I don't mean that Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, or Charlotte Church are disenfranchised because they have played the publicity game. I do mean that people who agree to be treated as something out of the ordinary – why else seek fame? – can't claim the anonymity of Bloggs along the road. Once you've done the chat shows there is no going back. You have the right not to be bullied, threatened and spied upon. But think of it this way: there is no more self-pitying creature than a former celebrity who can't get publicity.
All of this was once understood. Where the celebrities of a generation ago were concerned, the public didn't know the half of it. Reality TV changed a few things. The idea that fame itself is fascinating altered a few others. The belief that "celebrity" is a career in its own right, talent or no talent, finished the job. The tabloids were there every step of the way. They could always have refused to sell newspapers instead.
That's not entirely a joke. The simple explanation for the behaviour of the News Of The World is that it did what it did because the formula was fantastically successful. One effect was to raise the stakes, higher and higher. Along the way, some people were allowed to represent newspapers in blind ignorance of the law. It's true: some tabloid reporters didn't know that phone hacking was illegal. Others didn't understand defamation, or dismissed it as an editorial overhead.
I still wonder, though, whether the likes of Campbell or Paul McMullan, the former News Of The World journalist, should have been attending the same inquiry as the McCanns or the Dowlers. I wonder whether Hugh Grant should have been attending the same inquiry. McMullan's extravagant defence of intrusion – "Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things in. Privacy is for paedos; fundamentally nobody else needs it" – was beyond nonsense when set beside families tortured for the sake of a few headlines.
The rules of the game – and for some a game is what it is – have changed. A celebrity such as JK Rowling with a vast fortune and a sure touch in handling the media, can no longer keep hacks away from her children. A young star such as Church, allegedly prepared even to sing at Rupert Murdoch's wedding in exchange for "favourable treatment", can no longer prevent the tabloids from driving her mother, so she claims, to attempt suicide. It raises a profound question: has cruelty itself become the entertainment?
Political journalism is brutal: that was Campbell's excuse when he went to work for Blair. Politics and media ownership structures create a battlefield in which no prisoners are taken. Show business, forever selling its product, forever seeking conduits to reach the public, is hardly more gentle. But we have now reached the point at which anyone is fair game if, by some misfortune, they are touched by the game. Anne Diamond's dead child, a coffin snapped by a long lens, had not even found a place in the world. And Leveson runs the risk of compounding the confusion.
At this point you could join Campbell among the newly-pious. All of it would stop – the law-breaking, the arrogance of power, the cruelty – if the customers found better ways to spend their money. But does anyone think that Leveson can cure habits of mind? Despite all the denials, the politicians and the tabloids will return to their cosy lunches soon enough. The celebrities will go back to jumping through the PR hoops.
But remember: The Sun's website ran a "countdown" to Church's 16th birthday. Crafting a fantasy of predatory sex was, they thought, a bit of fun. What could Leveson ever do about such (probably legal) behaviour, or about the fact that it did not harm The Sun's sales in the slightest? Court 73 of London's Royal Courts of Justice is nowhere near big enough.
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