The Old Man and the Sleaze
Although they have been, historically, loath to admit it, journalists are human. They err. But if error was their only offence, there would be no story. The true crimes of yellow journalism are bias, gossip and bribes. There is a class difference between bias, the privilege of owners and editors, and gossip, the diet of down-market news rooms. But cash is classless.
Gossip is more honest than bias; there may be more chicanery but there is less deceit. Gossip rarely pretends to be what it is not; it has a breathless, giveaway style, heavily dependent on suggestion and suspicion. Gutter press lords float bias on wafts of pseudo-ideology. Bias is a culture, a genetic strain that runs through the dna of a publication. Gossip is an industry, with reporters as its working class. Every level of the factory knows the algebra: gossip equals sensation, sensation equals sales, sales equal advertising, advertising equals pay-cheques. This is the confident mathematics of sensationalism. Sex, the most familiar ingredient of sensation, is a comparatively innocent indulgence: the merely salacious can never compete in impact and intensity with a high-ticket mobilisation of reader sentiment like fear, and its induced consequence, revulsion or hatred.
An authentic predator-genius of the media business like Rupert Murdoch derives his power from three generators. First is the vaulting ambition of a ruthless conqueror. This requires genius, of course; you cannot be Chengiz Khan or Taimur without extraordinary resources of will, ability and the unstoppable trajectory of a gambler whose adrenalin rises in proportion to the stake. You cannot run out of kingdoms to subjugate. Success is the only law. The only moral is in the marketplace: what sells must be good, because there is a buyer. Failure is evil. Readers get what they deserve, and deserve what they get. There is nothing sentimental about content: Those who want High Church get the Wall Street Journal; voyeurs are offered News of the World.
The voyeur is obviously complicit: sleaze is a shared pleasure. There is no Murdoch without the reader, and indeed there is no reader without a Murdoch. They are partners who need each other. The journalist, whether an editor like Andy Coulson who dines with Prime Ministers, or the celeb-hunter running with the pack, is a necessary hyphen, driven by the high cash rewards for prurience. The photographer who snaps topless models for a living is actually quite jaded. It is the reader who ogles. Stories are cooked up by cynics who have lost any early appetite for good taste. The front page is driven by hysteria, fed by ravenous competition. Since money is the only value in this world, no one even wonders if there is anything wrong with hacking into the mobile phone of a murdered child, Milly Dowler, just 13 when she was killed in 2002.
The third side of a Murdoch power triangle is, well, power. Murdoch’s tabloids have many times more readers than a political party has members. Voila: who sets the agenda for elections? Murdoch traded his readership for personal power. Politicians obeyed, or else. British politicians used to understand the dangers of pen-pushers without accountability. In the early days of print media, the press was barred from the British Parliament. Publishing reports of a debate was considered “high indignity” and “notorious breach of privilege”.
Modern politicians find it easier to sup with Murdoch. The relationship is cultivated with great sophistication, of course, as behoves a ruling class with generations of pedigree. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s personal circle of close friends, now dubbed the North Oxford Set, included Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of a Murdoch company before she was arrested; her husband Charlie Brooks; Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter, and her husband Matthew Freud, a pr smoothie; and James Murdoch, Rupert’s son. His close adviser was Andy Coulson, who led the team as editor when Milly Dowler’s phone was ‘pinged’ [the technical term used by the police for monitoring a mobile phone]. The Set sipped fine wine from cut glass in the shires, and elegant conversation doubtless improved the taste of dinner cooked in Cameron’s million-pound kitchen. How could we ever have guessed that at the heart of this bonhomie was the multi-dimensional fiscal-political profit from sleaze.
Paradise is lost when your moral compass disappears. Murdoch knew he was never in any danger from prime ministers or their police, who gratuitously looked away from the evidence for nearly a decade. But he made the fatal mistake of believing that his readers were as amoral as he was. Readers went along with titillation; but they drew the line at mercenary exploitation of a child’s corpse. The algebra had a backlash: a Murdoch without readers is a useless Murdoch. Politicians have no use for the useless.
There is no one more lonely than a prostrate god with feet of clay.