Prole Porn and the Press

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The Economist‘s Bagehot has a queasy feeling in his stomach after reading the coverage of Baby P, and I can’t say I blame him

    Perhaps I’m especially squeamish about it, because I’ve got a child of roughly the same age as the victim, but I find today’s renewed and blanket coverage of the Baby Peter case-in which a toddler was tortured to death in appalling circumstances in 2007-sickening and largely pointless. Much of the coverage is gruesomely exploitative and some of it near-pornographic. All the stuff about how the criminals may, eventually, be given fresh identities at the taxpayer’s expense, to protect them from vigilantes when they get out of prison, is just emptily speculative rabble-rousing.

Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times made much the same point in December when he reminded me of an old newspaper term I had not heard in years.

 The Shannon Matthews case was very ‘fish and chippy’. This is an expression Fleet Street newsdesks once used. It meant that a story was sordid and low life. They didn’t say this out of snobbery, they said it because such stories should not be given too much prominence – or reported at all – because they were simply grim and added nothing to human wisdom. That’s all changed, of course, fish and chippiness is now the media’s default mode. TV news bulletins at 6pm blithely detail crimes that were once never discussed and the newspapers report Matthews-like cases in frenetic and slavering detail. The inevitable ‘public interest’ line has emerged – was this another social services cock-up? – so the fish and chips are now flavoured with the salt and vinegar of social concern. Well, yes, but anybody who thinks that’s why the media was reporting this in such detail is, of course, naive. But why do we report it? Because, I suppose, it’s exciting in a ghoulish, lurid way and because it makes people feel that, however bad they are, they’re not this bad. But there’s another aspect to the meaning of ‘fish and chippy’. It also means routine, it contains within it the wisdom that, however good our social services, however concerned out society, children will continue to be abducted, abused and exploited, probably at more or less the same rate as they have been throughout history. It may seem a terrible thing to say but child abuse is a banality, an evil banality certainly, but a banality nonetheless. Maybe we can do a more now to limit the damage, and so we should, but I doubt that we can do much. These stories are blank walls on which we scribble our fantasies and our need for moral sustenance. Perhaps they should be put back in the file labelled ‘too fish and chippy’.

  What is going on? Why are the media embracing stories they would have never have touched or buried on page 11 years ago? I must disagree with Bryan and point him (and you) to a very perceptive article Danuta Kean wrote last year on the dreadful Angela’s Ashes and its aftermath. Emboldened by its success, she says, publishers grew ever more uninhibited as the discovered the size of the fish and chip market. 

   Each book seemed to push the border between taste and titillation further as the content became ever more graphic in their depiction of abuse – especially child sexual abuse. The books were aimed at readers at the lower end of the magazine market. In fact many of the stories first emerged in the pages of the likes of Chat, Bella and Take-a-Break, peddled by local journalists covering the court beat or contacted by “victims” who wanted to tell their story – at a price.
   One of the things I discovered while researching a piece for the Mail and a piece for The Deal, the London Book Fair magazine, about the ethics of crime and factual writing was that there is a widespread misconception that newspapers serialise the more graphic stories. This was not true. I spoke to execs across the tabloids who said they were sick of seeing tales of abuse. One exec at a Sunday red top told me (without irony): “We’re a family newspaper. People read us over breakfast, they don’t want to read about graphic sexual abuse and cruelty to children on a Sunday morning.”

   Their view was echoed across Fleet Street by everyone to whom I spoke. Something seems to have changed. The reporting of the depraved treatment of Baby P has plumbed new depths of detail. One “family newspaper” went further than any in its revelations. The sickening detail – bullet-pointed for those unable to read the whole article – was unaviodable, and for me meant my usual trawl through the weekend papers was abandoned. I couldn’t bear to read what had happened (and not just because I have a four-month old baby). I didn’t need that level of detail. Knowing a child had been appallingly treated and died was enough to outrage me. I am sure I am not alone.
Book publishers have come in for a lot of stick from newspapers about misery memoirs. I should know, I kick started it. They have been accused of cashing in on suffering by offering a particularly nasty form of titillation bought predominantly by housewives on their weekly shop in Tesco. They have been accused of pushing boundaries beyond what is acceptable, even to “family newspapers”. What the reporting of Baby P shows is that the boundaries pushed by these books have finally been crossed by Fleet Street.

Danuta highlighted Paul Dacre’s speech to the Society of Editors http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7718961.stm in which he rightly accused the judiciary, most notably Mr Justice Eady, of inventing a privacy law without parliamentary authorisation.

   After Eady’s Max Mosely judgment, tabloids beacme nervous about running stories about celebrities and needed a replacement. They found it in the misery market. This is why Baby P’s wretched life receives such prominence (and not just on those low-class red-tops, but in what we used to call the broadsheets and on the BBC).

  You might say that newspapers should be concentrating on investigative journalism, but the judiciary’s failure to reform our authoritarian libel laws in the face of international protest is making the uncovering of wrong-doing ever harder. As I have argued here and here  cash-strapped media organisations cannot take the risk of a fighting a frighteningly expensive libel action in front of a hostile judge.

   Many judges assume that if we were to have freedom of speech in England our culture would be debased. They see themselves as sophisticated men of taste and breeding who are holding the line against a depraved media. In reality, their eagerness to censor and unwillingness to and nurture the liberal values of an open society, are pushing standards into the gutter.