The irony of the current situation is that at a time of much hand-wringing about the future of journalism, the News of the World was one newspaper that was actually making plenty of money. Unlike, for example, the Guardian, who exposed them. Or the Times.
And I like living in a country which has a strong, vibrant newspaper culture. Even if sales have been in long term decline, and the pressure to maintain profitability has probably led to a decline in standards over the past few years, we still have nine national daily newspapers and at least four of them are reasonably serious publications.
And it’s good that they have a certain ferocity and ruthlessness to them: better that than being instinctively deferential to the rich and powerful. I always thought there was something deeply wrongheaded about the American idea that you should ‘respect the office of the President, even if you don’t respect the man’. That’s one mistake you can’t imagine the British press making.
And I don’t particularly object to the popular press being driven as much by celebrity gossip as hard news, if that’s what sells papers. I’m certainly wary of a strong legal right to privacy if the result is simply that it hands the rich and powerful another tool to deflect criticism.
And I think that it is defensible for a journalist to use illegal means to get information in the service of a greater good. If the phone hacking and blagging and email hacking had been used to expose corporate fraud, or government corruption, or some other kind of criminal or highly unethical behaviour from a public body, I would be the first to defend it. Famously, the Telegraph paid for stolen information to break the parliamentary expenses scandal.
But. The trouble is, even leaving aside the most extreme cases, the British papers have spent the past thirty years undermining their own credibility. Celebrity gossip may be defensible. Phone hacking may be defensible in some circumstances. Combining the two is fucking insane. I don’t particularly care about Sienna Miller one way or the other, but illegally listening to her phone messages on the off-chance that you might learn something about her sex life which would help sell papers… it undermines the whole idea of investigative journalism. At this point, any tabloid journalist who stands up and makes a perfectly reasonable defence of the valuable role of journalism in a democratic society immediately comes across as hypocritical and self-serving.