It’s been a dark week for the British press

Posted on September 2, 2010

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It’s been a dark week for the British press, and it reminds us that though we often have a lot to be proud about as regards our newspapers, there is a worrying shift towards slander and the tail wagging the dog.

It’s curious that in a week when Tony Blair released his memoirs his revelations about his time in power are the third most shocking story in politics this week – and both those that top a story which includes the quote that Gordon Brown has “zero” emotional intelligence (a fairly explosive and newsworthy quote in any situation) gravitate around the rather less proud aspects of our daily press.

Andy Coulson and William Hague have been in the papers for largely the wrong reasons – and though they’re both serving in the same government, for the same political party, they are both the cause and effect of what can happen when the press is stuck in an untrammelled fever for a scoop.

Coulson, when editor of the News of the World, is alleged by various newspapers (including an in-depth New York Times expose) to have directly overseen the hacking into of mobile phone voicemail inboxes – phonetaps. Coulson has repeatedly denied the allegations, but resigned as editor when his Royal Editor was found guilty of working in cahoots with a private investigator to tap the phones of Princes William and Harry.

It’s a damning indictment of ourselves that this sort of mundane chatter (like the news that William sprained a knee, which under Coulson was a major story for the NOTW) sells papers. It’s a damning indictment of our press that they feel the need to debase their noble histories to the lowest common denominator by publishing these stories. And it’s a damning indictment of us as a nation that we not only accept, but encourage the illegal tapping of phones and listening in on private conversations and pass it off as investigative journalism.

It’s part of a malaise in the media that has been happening for a while. Even the BBC, founded on the Tristam’s claims to educate, entertain and inform, has been relying too much on the “entertain” part of that triptych – and entertaining in the form of idle, often baseless, chatter. The News of the World wasn’t – and isn’t – the only paper that relies on such tactics, nor is it the only paper that sells stories based on hearsay and snatched or stolen evidence. It is, sadly, just giving us what a significant majority of us want: tattle.

Which brings us to the more public face of the two Conservatives that are in the media for the media this week – and it’s more concerning that this “story” broke on the Telegraph’s website.

William Hague has been the butt of innuendo surrounding his relationship with his special adviser; online chatter in the blogosphere has claimed that he has been having a homosexual relationship with aide Christopher Myers.

Regardless of the fact that it is entirely his own business if William Hague were to undertake a gay relationship with a young adviser, the fact that it is entirely untrue and yet has been published in daily quality newspapers as possible fact is ridiculous. The tip-off (if it can be classed as that) came from Guido Fawkes’ blog, which trailed the story as saying that the two’s body language at a hotel breakfast was interesting.

Of concern is the fact that unfounded hearsay on a blog can become part of the news cycle in such an easy step. Even those who never published the claims as if they were a likelihood were able to capitalise on the salacious story. Printing the fact that Hague vehemently denies the claims is just an insignificant (and rather transparent) degree of separation from reporting it as fact – you still get the sales from the public looking for a good bit of intrigue from a rather upright and upstanding member of Parliament. It’s akin to a child, his face smothered in chocolate, denying that he had the last chocolate digestive. It’s cheap and it’s nasty and it’s not what our grand press tradition is worthy of.

What do you think of the modern-day British press? Is it excusable to print rumours or truth from stolen evidence? Let me know below.

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