For those who have been sheltering in a bunker buried 37 miles beneath the Lunar regolith for the past week, you won’t have heard that the News of the World, a tabloid
pwned owned by one Mr R. M. of Australia the U. S. and A., has closed down in the wake of a scandal in which journalists at that paper, and possibly some of its sister publications, are alleged to have been complicit in the illegal phone-hacking of the private compartments conversations of not just politicians and such, but the relatives of murder victims.
Far be it from me to introduce a link to any one of the legions of
self-righteous biased objective accounts of the tale (frankly, my dear readers, you can take your pick), all of which – because they will, naturally, have come through The Guardian news outlets which, however much they protest to the contrary – will have some degree of spin, notwithstanding inasmuch as they might very well be up to their necks in it themselves, there but for the Grace of God Dawkins the Flying Spaghetti Monster go I, will be steeped in the treacly ichor that is schadenfreude.
What struck me early about this whole episode was the sickly-sweet savour of hypocrisy that swirled around mes narines barely minutes after the story itself reached mes oreilles. So I am grateful to Ms T. H. of Facebook who alerted me and no doubt many other people to this article in which one Mick Hume says it far better than I can, exposing the so-called liberal intelligentsia for its faux-outrage of the antics of a newspaper, read by millions for 160 years, which they didn’t like anyway (because, my dear, it’s read by common people) and whose proprietor, whatever his attributes, they loathe.
Mr Hume, for it is he, warns that in the danger of the scalping of the News of the Screws lies the very real possibility that investigative journalism – proper investigative journalism – already rather limp in this country, replaced as it has been by PR, will die, and with that, the freedom of the press in general. Those, such as representatives of the abhorrent vacuum that is the Labour Party, who say that the closure of the Screws is a good day for democracy, are woefully misguided. Democracy relies on a press that is free, and, given that, will say things that the intelligentsia won’t like. Hume notes that prominent among those apparently high-minded critics of the Screws include those with obvious scores to settle.
Is [Hugh] Grant the moral crusader for media regulation in any way related to the posh British actor who was splashed all over the press after being caught with his pants down with a Hollywood hooker? Has Lord John Prescott the outraged critic of the tabloids ever met the buffoonish Labour deputy prime minister who was made into an even grosser figure of ridicule by the papers’ exposure of his affair with his secretary? Does Chris Bryant, who has toured every news studio to denounce the Murdoch press, remember the young Labour MP exposed in the press for posting pictures of himself in his underpants on a gay sex website? And so it goes on.
But soft – if the News of the Screws did indeed such things as tap the phones not of people in the public yeux- for, as Mr Hume says, investigative journalists must occasionally resort to somewhat underhand methods to get their stories, given that they are trying to discover things that the subjects of the stories don’t want them to find out – but the families of victims of hideous crimes, then this is not the prosecution of news, but a kind of voyeurism. There, my friends, is the rub. ‘Such a voyeuristic attitude is not, it should be noted, entirely confined to the News of the World,’ notes Mr Hume;
… all mainstream media outlets have become obsessed with reporting feelings as much as facts in recent years.
This struck a chord with me (the emphases are mine), as I have been much exercised by the generally poor (and declining) standards of journalism in this country and perhaps elsewhere, in which vox-pops have replaced news, and in which ordinary people, who might have sincere views but not necessarily any expertise, are canvassed for their opinions of the day, which are treated with as much reverence (or more) as the views of people who actually know what they are talking about. To yer average
hack journalist, views based on feelings and views based on facts appear to have become indistinguishable as regards their credence or value.
Now, this is meant to be a science blog, however tangentially, so if you are a scientist, think how deeply the prosecution of science and its image in the public mind have been affected by the reverence of views held by people with no scientific knowledge whatsoever as regards their pronouncements on science. Clerics, homeopaths, celebrities, faith healers, soldiers, sailors and, for all I know, candlestick makers, are deemed to have a view as valid as any scientist who just happens to have spent many years actually doing science, rather than reading half-digested third-hand gobbets of the stuff in the popular prints, or discussing it with their mates in the pub.
But I digress.
The word in Mr Hume’s article that shone out to me in mile-high letters of
GFP red neon was feelings. You’ve all heard, I expect, interviews in which a journalist approaches a member of the public and says something like:
Well, Mrs Cringe, your husband has been exposed as the leader of an international pedophile ring; your house, which isn’t insured, has been destroyed by a freak typhoon; your benefits have been removed as a result of the government’s savage cuts; your civil action against the phone company for the headaches you’ve suffered by living next to a mobile phone mast has collapsed due to lack of evidence, leaving you with a legal bill of a million pounds; your son has run away to join a jihadist cell in Yemen, and you’ve found that your daughter enjoys rough sex with under-age okapis. How do you feel?
This, for those who don’t know, is an example – though, I admit, entirely fictitious, and probably atypical, but you get the point – of what’s called a leading question. That is, a question that presupposes an answer, and therefore at some remove from any objective criterion of reportage. Leading questions are especially prevalent in sports journalism. It was the late Frank Zappa who said that music journalists were people who couldn’t write interviewing people who couldn’t speak for the benefit of people who couldn’t read, but the same applies in general to sports reporting and, sadly, to journalism in general.
It’s not, though, simply a matter of slack-jawed pseudojournalism by barely trained illiterati – the people who run popular newspapers are not idiots, but highly articulate and intelligent. There is an agenda here, and it’s this: leading questions allow one to talk about feelings, reporting them as facts.
This trend, I think, is deeply dangerous for the whole of society. When I learned that the parents of a disappeared teenager (who was subsequently murdered) had discovered that their daughter’s voicemail had (allegedly) been hacked, they were – perhaps understandably – given media slots to air their views, and were granted interviews with senior politicians who undertook, solemnly, to Do Something About It.
Whereas one can have nothing but sympathy for any parent in such a position – their lives are already an unimaginable nightmare even without the phone-hacking malarkey – I humbly suggest that such people are not suitable advocates for the framing of policy or the administration of justice – in the same way that one should not drink too deep of the cup of outrage offered by the likes of John Prescott whose personal
armadillos peccadilloes peccaries have been lampooned in the same newpapers whose sacrifically flayed corpses they now demand. Feelings are not facts, and outrage is not the same thing as justice.
My perusal of this whole affair brings to mind a passage in one of my favourite books, Anglo-Saxon England, by Peter Hunter Blair (1st edn. 1956), a book which
unaccountably I seem to have lost I’ve found it now!!! The passage relates to property disputes, and I quote:
This was the normal procedure in an Anglo-Saxon lawsuit. The defendant was not required to produce evidence about the facts of the dispute, but to bring before the court compurgators or oath-helpers who would swear that the oath taken by the defendant was pure and not false as the plaintiff maintained. The number of oath-helpers required varied according to the nature of the accusation involved and the value of each oath similarly varied according to the standing of the individual who made it. If the requisite number of oath-helpers was produced before the court and the oath taken in full, the case was at an end. (p. 230)
In other words, the facts in a case rested not on any evidence, but in the reputations of the various parties concerned. Justice could be dispensed to curry favour, to make local notables dispensing the justice look good in front of their public, as much to punish evil-doers. Sound familiar?
In my humble opinion, to let feelings substitute for facts threatens not just to cheapen science, but society as a whole, and could put our system of criminal justice back a thousand years.