Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The hacking stain spreads (but who’s minding the baby?)


Back in April I wrote that I doubted whether the rest of the UK media would succeed in their attempts to quarantine the hacking scandal inside News of the World. Today we discover that the Daily Mirror has “launched a review into editorial standards” at all of its titles in response to allegations that reporters intercepted voicemail messages.
Piers Morgan, the former Mirror editor, made some suggestive admissions in his Desert Island Discs appearance, just placed online in text and sound by The Daily Beast:
Kirsty Young asks Morgan about “People who tap people’s phones, people who take secret photographs...who do all that very nasty down-in-the-gutter stuff—how did you feel about that?”
Morgan replies: “...Not a lot of that went on…A lot of it was done by third parties, rather than the staff themselves... That’s not to defend it, because obviously you were running the results of their work.”
Interesting coincidence that two commentators who have advocated draconian responses to the scandal are both graduates of the journalists’ training scheme which the Mirror used to run through its weeklies in South West England.
I’ve already noted the comments from Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell (Tavistock Times, 1980)...
“The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no.”
... reflecting that Alastair’s prescription implies some powerful tribunal with acute moral sensibilities and legal weaponry which would be able to arbitrate on the composition and the protection or proscription of such notions as “culture” and “society”, “debasement” and “trivia.”
Now along comes Chris Mullin, an M.P. from 1987 until 2010, who was a Mirror trainee in and around Torquay while I was serving my apprenticeship at The Western Morning News.
In last night’s Channel Four Dispatches about Rupert Murdoch, Chris got rather excited about the prospect of the old ogre’s empire disintegrating.
“This is the key moment,” He declared. “There’ll never be a moment like this again in our lives when you can actually take these guys on. And I favour now striking with great force, and getting them down to a size where they cannot intimidate governments. I think that must be a key objective.”
Crikey. Having been struck with great force and got down to an impotent size, would “these guys” then be susceptible to intimidation by government instead? Sounds like it.
My concern continues to be whether the baby of free speech and a healthy press is about to be chucked out with the contaminated bathwater of the hacking scandal.
Meanwhile, read this new report from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. It reveals why many journalists – and some senior police officers – believed for years that the law said a phone message, once listened to, could not then be “intercepted” even if it hadn’t been deleted from the voicemail, and was therefore not illegally hacked if subsequently accessed by a third party. The report also contains lots more hair-raising (and depressing) information about the whole debacle.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Entertainment or propaganda? – from W1 to E98


I didn’t know until a day or so ago that Margaret Howell, the upmarket shirt shop in Wigmore Street, used to be the Bechstein piano emporium. Nor did I know that the Wigmore Hall, when it opened in 1901, was called the Bechstein Hall, and had been paid for by the neighbouring importer of German uprights and grands.
My third heretofore unknown fact was that in 1916, around the time Dame Nellie Melba was savaged by “patriots” for having a Bechstein to accompany her as she sang “Land of Hope and Glory”, the British government confiscated shop, hall and the contents of both on the pretext that they were enemy property.
I discovered these things while poking about the web after visiting the Wigmore Hall for the first time this week to see our friends’ daughter play violin in the superb Pro Corda Chamber Champions Concert.
It would have made more sense had I already known the previously unknowns when, listening in the first half to Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, I began to get spooked by some troubling imagery.
Above, the painted figures gleamed in their golden canopy. Piano, violin and cello shone and flashed, and the young players in their evening dress looked elegant and charming and beautiful as they unwound the melancholy enchantment of the music.
But what I began thinking of was the same concert happening not in 2011, or even 1911, but in the 1920’s, and not in London, but in Berlin, and in a society slowly moving, stitch by stitch then step by step, but so slowly that the stitches were at first unseen, and the steps could at first be ignored or denied, towards a howling chaos of flags and boots and uniforms in which the players would be engulfed.
Why did two movements of 19th century music seem pregnant with 20th century horrors? And even more so when, during the second half, in another trio, Shostakovich’s No 2 in E Minor, a face seemed to raise itself from the contemplation of that same bloody chasm to stare out at us.
The Shostakovich was written in 1944, after the more-than-decimation of the Soviet Union in World War II (14 per cent of the population – 23.4 million – slain), and after the revelations of the holocaust; through the trio blows, or so it seemed to me, those “winds that were old when the Gods were young,” those winds that fan sparks into fire and spread snow over ashes; piano was drum and gun and bell, cello was crunch of feet and snapping of twigs and then a guitar and then cello again, while the violin plucked out fragments of Jewish song and wept or laughed – and the whole piece ended, or faded, rather (again, so it seemed to me), on a brief but ambiguous chord like a question mark.
A programme note reminded us that Shostakovich was often in big trouble with the Soviet authorities. He couldn’t do “socialist realism,” he couldn’t churn out stuff that “served the revolution,” the musical equivalent of the kind of kitsch I wrote about after seeing the University of Westminster’s exhibition of images from Mao’s China a few weeks back.
So there is nothing “heroic” or “triumphant” about this E Minor trio. There is nothing which is in the service of anything at all. It is art, and it is reportage, and it is an entertainment.
Let me rush to explain that by an entertainment I mean that which persuades us, for its duration, to put aside all other preoccupations and concentrate on what it’s doing. By that definition, King Lear is as much an entertainment as Morecambe and Wise, Mendelssohn (or Shostakovich) as Buddy Holly.
What an entertainment does not ever do is try to get our attention with the grappling hooks of a prior moral claim or a charitable purpose or a political manifesto. It does not say, you MUST watch or listen to or read this because if you don’t you’re an unfeeling or uncaring louse.
An entertainer (whether Dmitry Shostakovich or Buddy Holly) recognises a certain duty which T.S. Eliot (who wasn’t Ogden Nash) identified when discussing his own craft. He wrote: “We cannot afford to forget that the first - and not one of the least difficult - requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting.”
You may, perhaps, have realised by now that I’ve been heading all along from Wigmore Street to Fleet Street, or, more accurately, from Wigmore Street (W1) to Wapping (E98) by way of the continuing shenanigans at News International and in the House of Commons.
In journalism, I’m inclined to believe, the only choice is between entertainment or propaganda.
News International has been as guilty as other papers of crossing the line. One thinks of Rebekah Brooks’s asinine campaign for a “Sarah’s Law”. It is the business of journalists to report – disinterestedly – an outrage. It is the business of politicians to campaign and change laws.
Stitch by stitch and step by step we are now travelling through a period of hysteria towards... well, not flags, boots and uniforms, I hope, but certainly towards a new system of Press regulation. I’ll just quote Alastair Campbell again: “The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no.”
Entertainment, eh? Irresponsible stuff. No, what journalism needs is a purpose, an agenda, a seriousness, a “passion”, a reverence for “culture” and a respect for “society”. But do we dare ask, who defines “culture”? or, what constitutes “society”? or could we suggest that what journalism “needs” might turn out, alas, to end with its conversion from entertainment to propaganda?

Monday, 11 July 2011

Who bans the news that “isn’t fit to print”?


A sentence and an image are haunting me. The sentence, prompted by the righteous outpourings of The Guardian, the BBC, and certain Members of Parliament, is Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s:
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”
The image, perhaps a bit impious, was occasioned by the fate of The News of the World: a thief being nailed and hoisted on a cross.
This is Sir Roger L’Estrange (1616-1704). He lived up to his surname. On the one hand, he was a journalist and the publisher of two papers, The Public Intelligencer (Mondays) and The News (Thursdays). On the other, he was a censor, known as “The Bloodhound of the Press” for the ferocity with which he purged, persecuted and suppressed dissidence and non-conformity in his twin roles as Surveyor of the Imprimery (the printing presses) and Licenser of the Press.
Dear old Rog even tried to cut six lines from Paradise Lost because he reckoned that Milton was making some coded attempt to subvert Charles II (Book I, 594-599). Failed, I’m glad to say.
Anyway, simply because it proves that it’s quite possible for a journalist to be as censorious as a puritan, the story of this smiling, savage Cavalier came back to me yesterday when I was reading one of Alastair Campbell’s many eloquent denunciations of the Murdoch media empire. This one, called The News that wasn't fit to print, celebrated the demise of The News of the World in the Irish Independent. It was the peroration (to use a Miltonian word), that sparked my train of thought:
“As to where this all ends,” Alastair writes, “who knows? It is hard to see how there won't be more arrests and more prosecutions. The press will lick their wounds but then, as they have so many times before, fight hard and dirty to try to win the argument that anything but toothless self-regulation such as they enjoy at the moment will be an attack on a free press. The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no.” (Italics mine)
None of us, I’m certain, wants a press that is “above the law” or “untouchable”. But how precisely do you prevent the press “debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity” without installing some draconian form of censorship. How will you determine what constitutes “trivia” or “abuse” or “negativity”? What exactly is the purpose of including “celebrity” under the Campbell dispensation, and what is to be done with or about it or them?
I was quite surprised to read a Press release today which described the new Bribery Act which just came into force in the UK as “the strictest bribery and anti-corruption law anywhere in the world”. That sounded rather frightening and not very British. I wonder if in the backlash from the hacking scandal we aren’t in danger of sleepwalking away from a free press and towards the strictest media regulation in the world? Hope not.