We’re all shocked. We’re all justified in being shocked. Out come the words for being shocked: nauseated, disgusted, appalled, disgusted and nauseated.
It took something genuinely horrible to elicit this reaction from all of us, and not only those who bought the News of the World every week. It took the revelation that an investigator listened to the ‘phone messages of the murdered teenager, Milly Dowler, and then deleted them. On top of this came the news that families of men who died for their country suffered the same indignity.
No earlier allegations about ‘phone hacking outdo this depth of grubbing around for an anguished quotation. And yet we need to ask the question — why weren’t we disgusted and nauseated before? A timeline of the scandal is revealing. It began in 2005, with a story about Prince William’s knee. The News of the World‘s royal reporter, Clive Goodman, went to prison as a result. He was clearly a bad man, but the law courts dealt with it. End of story, except, poor Prince William, having his ‘phone hacked. We’re sorry about the knee, too. Get well soon, your Royal Highness.
Then came the celebrities: Sienna Miller was distressed, but amply compensated. The deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, surely had his ‘phone hacked. But he was up to no good in any case, and as for Sienna Miller — she’s appeared in racy films.
Now, about Sienna Miller: I’ve heard it seriously argued that it’s all right to invade her privacy. Some wag on one of those “21st-Century Worst Celebrity Moments” pageants actually articulated the idea that, because she’d been topless in a film, she shouldn’t mind about pap photos of her bust on the beach. The logical consequences of this don’t bear thinking about. But the fact that someone thought he could get away with this line on national television suggests that he anticipated some sympathy from his audience. (I forget the fellow’s name.)
Recently, though, the BBC gave Hugh Grant a platform for his views on the subject — this time, his voice was unmediated by print and pictures. He was talking to the PM programme’s Privacy Commission, and stressed that his concern was not merely for the rich — it was for ordinary people.
Now, this distinction between the rich and famous on the one hand, and the ordinary on the other, needs careful examination, especially in an age when, we’re told, more and more people are becoming famous for less and less. If it’s true that more of us are famous, then, to a tabloid journalist, more of us are worth listening to, whether we want to be heard or not. Journalists want to catch us as they want to catch celebrities: when we’re off-guard, or vulnerable — as if that makes us more human, and our experiences closer to those of other mortals. Even so, one implication is that some people want fame and achieve it, and others achieve it without wanting it at all. In the latter category belong the victims of crime. To invade their privacy strikes us as all the more deplorable since they didn’t seek to share their lives with the rest of us, nor to profit from who they happen, for better or for worse, to be.
Isn’t everyone entitled to this degree of dignity? It sounds like a trivial question but — can’t Sienna Miller sunbathe in peace, regardless of anything she may have done for Vogue? Can’t the artists who submit themselves for interview on the BBC’s Front Row programme do so without having to answer questions about their sexuality? Does Sir Max Mosley’s night life have much bearing on his ability to do the day job at the Formula 1 office?
There are plenty of stories worth telling, and scandals to unearth; and we need journalists to cover them. But how much better is the journalist who can do it using, say, the Freedom of Information act, that began the exposure of parliamentarians who fiddled their expenses; or who can cultivate whistleblowers? To gain a story by ‘phone-hacking, and the subsequent blagging and blackmail, or by intrusion — isn’t that a little easy, or worse, a little cheap?
It took Patrick Swayze a while to tell his mother that he was dying. As it turned out, he didn’t have the chance to break it to her. A reporter had already rapped on her door and asked for her reaction to the news. In Swayze’s memoirs, he responds to this with a little sarcasm, then moves on. Now, for someone as illustrious as Prince William to hurt his knee — this, somehow, is news. For a celebrity to have a terminal illness — yes, it’s news. For one of us to lose a loved one, through murder or through war — it’s traumatic, and the more traumatic it is, the more it’s news. It looks for a moment like a spectrum, or a formula: the less famous you are, the more terrible your life has to be for it to become interesting to the rest of us. But this obscures a constant: some aspects of this news will always be intimate and incommunicable. It remains for the rest of us to show the compassion to say, How would I feel under those circumstances? And to go about the rest of our lives.