Journalists, newspapers, and the “media establishment” are like most people: They love nothing more than talking about themselves. By that measure, the mainstream media in Britain has had a banner couple of months – first the super-injunction debate and now, the phone hacking scandal, the gift that just keeps on giving, spitting out headline after headline like a broken vending machine doling out sticky, gooey treats.
News of the World closes! David Cameron is in trouble! Rebekah Brooks keeps her job! Then she leaves it! Then the phone hacking scandal claims the Met’s top brass! Then Jude Law sues News International! Then Rupert Murdoch might get fired! Then he gets a pie in the face! What could possibly happen next?
I’m going to make a bold statement: Beyond a sort of cursory interest, the only people who actually care about these headlines are journalists, newspapers, the “media establishment”, and the politicians – groups who can be notoriously out of touch with what real people are saying. We at Periscope are also guilty, evidently, since I keep approving and assigning and writing more and more stories about the phone hacking circus. Sorry – my only defence is that, well, all the other media outlets are talking about it.
Anecdotally, the proverbial man on the street – or in this case, the man on the Tweet – tends to be most interested in the phone hacking story when, say, Wendi Deng decks a pie-weilding attacker to protect her much older husband. Otherwise, it appears to be Tweeting journalists and news outlets adding to the froth of comment on the whole thing.
But real evidence that few real people care is in a recent Guardian/ICM poll indicating that this scandal, especially as it touches the political establishment, has done very little to shift public opinion of politicians. Cameron, whose ties to the phone hackers are muddied, to say the least, can probably rest easy: He’s still more popular than other leading politicians and the Coalition government itself. Ed Miliband, Labour leader who’s been beating the phone hacking drum, only enjoyed a slight bump in popularity, while Labour over all didn’t.
Perhaps the best evidence also comes from the same poll: Ten years ago, The Guardian asked respondents to rank professions by their status and reputation. Journalists, at the time, came out at the bottom of the stack. And this week, they’re still at the bottom of the stack, with roughly the same ranking.
If I’m wrong and people actually care about this scandal, let me know – leave a comment.
The point is people have always had a poor opinion of journalists, but that the phone hacking scandal has done little to change that opinion in either direction indicates that perhaps the eyes of the news-consuming public are glazing over. The scandal did reach what many considered a watershed moment, when allegations that New of the World hacked the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler surfaced. Then, the public – as in the people actually consuming the news, rather than crafting it – cared because it was shocking and horrifying and it just confirmed what they’d already thought about journalism: It is a fetid cesspit of cutthroat hacks scrambling over one another for a scoop.
The Dowler revelation, as well as subsequent charges that NoTW hacked the voicemails of the 7/7 victims, in addition to a never-ending parade of outraged celebrities, ignited some rage, but that spark has since died. Any actual interest in the story was drowned in a flood of navel-gazing reporting and now, even despite the recent resignations of Sir Paul Stephenson, Met Commisioner, and John Yates, assistant commissioner, interest is at low ebb.
What’s weird, however, is that despite the fact that most regular folks are not that overly concerned about the whole thing, this little tempest in a tabloid teapot has irrevocably changed the face of British politics, policing and media. Politically, it’s given politicians an opportunity to engage in some deeply satisfying public pillorying and finger-wagging at the committee hearings and in the press. In policing, it’s meant the loss of the Met’s two leaders over an issue that while disturbing, isn’t as big of a deal as, say, the shooting death of Jean Charles de Menzes in 2005 – which, notably, did not result in the resignation of the police commissioner at the time. And in terms of the media, the effect will be ongoing, at least in the sense that other, perhaps more important stories, are being sacrificed to accommodate more and more phone hacking coverage.
The bottom line is that when we can write about ourselves, we will and do so to the exclusion of everything else. The misconduct of News International and News of the World is deplorable, but in the grand scheme of things – famine in Somalia, what is essentially a civil war in Libya, the potential for a eurozone meltdown, even the debt ceiling crisis in the US – it’s kind of not that big a deal. The news-reading public knows that: The top story on The Guardian as I type is live coverage of the phone hacking hearing, sure, but the second most popular story is “The NFL Star And The Brain Injuries That Destroyed Him”, followed by “Great White Shark Jumps From Sea Into Research Boat”. Perhaps its time to take our cue from them and cover something else for a change?
But just in case you do care, here’s more on hackgate
- Murdoch’s appearance at the hearing: His ‘Wizard of Oz’ moment or a deeply Machiavellian plot to garner sympathy?
- Murdochs and Brooks face the music at culture select committee hearing
- Phone hacking storm gathers pace: Rebekah Brooks arrested, Paul Stephenson resigns
- Brooks (finally) resigns
- Hackgate scandal spreads to US
- News Corp pulls plug on BSkyB deal
- Axed News of the World staffers hit Brooks with parting shot via final edition crossword