Out of sync

It’s always odd when you find yourself out of sync with public opinion. Specifically at the moment it’s the phone-hacking thing… there is a growing strand of opinion that the reaction is overblown and hysterical, that the media is only obsessed with it because it is a story about the media, that we should really be focussing on Very Serious stories like famine in East Africa and the possibility of a European sovereign debt crisis or a US default. And that the worldly, sophisticated reaction is to tut a bit over the bad behaviour of the tabloids but say t’was ever thus.

And there is some truth to it, of course. There is a touch of the feeding frenzy in the way that the story has completely consumed all news and politics for the past week or so. After all, the latest phase of the phone-hacking investigation had been rolling on for months; Andy Coulson resigned back in January. And there were already plenty of reports of large scale criminality at the New of the World, including payments to the police as well as blagging and phone-hacking, none of which seemed to get a lot of political traction.

And then the story of them hacking Milly Dowler’s phone came out and suddenly the world went mad. Yesterday, for example, BBC radio broadcast live, continuous, almost uninterrupted audio from parliamentary select committees for about seven hours straight. And it made a rather wonderful change, to get current events live and unmediated without all the usual commentary, analysis and gossip: but it’s still extraordinary, the way it pushed everything else out of the news altogether.

So I think you can argue that there is something disproportionate about that sudden ramping up in intensity, even if much of it was fuelled by events: arrests, resignations, the closing the of the News of the World. Either the media and politicians are overreacting now, or they have been underreacting for months.

But the reason I talk about feeling out of sync with public opinion is that I never understood why everyone wasn’t already horrified. Even when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians; I know people don’t necessarily empathise very strongly with film stars and footballers, but the idea that it’s not a big deal if journalists to casually listen in to their private messages, not as part of some kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism, but on the off-chance that they might hear something which will titillate the public enough to sell a few newspapers… I just don’t know what to say. The idea of it makes my skin crawl. And apart from the fact that it’s creepy and sordid, even if you had no personal sympathy for the victims, what about the fact that they were accused of hacking the voicemails of cabinet ministers. I mean, politicians are even less likely to get public sympathy than footballers, but doesn’t it imply something pretty terrifying about press overreach that they would do something like that?

However. Sometimes you just realise that other people are not outraged by the same things you are. And if they don’t share that emotional response, well, you’re probably not going to argue them into it.

» Tiger Shark! is © Miusam CK and used under a CC Attribution licence.

5 replies on “Out of sync”

Kind of surprised that the folks around you are so jaded about it. I think it’s horrifying, for exactly the reasons you mention, and have the general impression that most of the people around me are similarly disgusted.

I actually don’t think that people are either jaded or having an outburst of empathy. I think pockets of the media are trotting out the ‘only the media care’ line out of a sense of propriety and then going back into the feeding frenzy.
Sadly I also don’t think it’s about disgust anymore. Once the initial shock at the Milly Dowler aspect was over I think it’s had little to do with your very human response of disgust. I think that the broader reaction is now as base and ugly a response as glee over some pantomime villains getting their comeuppance.

Kind of surprised that the folks around you are so jaded about it.

Well, I guess that may be because you haven’t had quite as much exposure to British tabloid culture. Obviously, plenty of countries have their own downmarket press, but in the UK, these are the biggest selling newspapers in the country and they have genuine political clout. And they have a long-standing reputation for ferocity. The press scrum gathered around someone’s house in the morning, the photographer with the long lens hiding in the bushes, the scummy tabloid journalist searching through people’s trash: these are absolute clichés of British TV drama.

So while the public may not have known the precise ways that they got their stories, they had a pretty good idea of their general approach. And since the tabloids have spent decades building up celebrities and then destroying them, it may not be surprising that people don’t tend to empathise with them as real human beings.

And I do think Elaine is completely right, actually: even the current reaction is as much to do with score-settling as anything else. There are an awful lot of people with reasons to dislike the tabloid press in general and Rupert Murdoch in particular, and a lot of people with reasons to attack the Prime Minister. And, to stick with the shark analogies, they all suddenly smelled blood in the water.

And the whole process is cheered on by people who just love the drama.

I feel like there is an undercurrent where I live that feels that privacy is only for people with something to hide. This makes me uncomfortable, especially since I have realized (the hard way) that I know next to nothing about online security. It makes me very nervous.

In the meantime, the American media (Rupert Murdoch’s Fox in particular) have been covering this story in such a way that it is hard to understand who is at fault, and who is the victim. For example the need for better security is often brought up in connection with this story and big companies who have been the VICTIMS of hacking are discussed as though they were parallel cases. The individuals who actually got hacked are not mentioned at all or only briefly. It is almost a bit surreal in light of the actual facts.

I feel like there is an undercurrent where I live that feels that privacy is only for people with something to hide.

Also creepy is the idea that it’s an all-or-nothing deal; that the moment you choose to sacrifice some part of your privacy by, for example, becoming an actor and doing publicity interviews, you lose the right to any privacy at all.

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