Chasing the Press into the Gutter

With the tabloids’ public interest defence in tatters, the BBC should beware falling into the same trap

Screen TV
A calculated freak show: BBC3's "Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents"

One question haunts me about the Leveson inquiry: what has happened to public interest journalism? The tabloids ran stories the public were ”interested” in, no doubt about it: voyeuristic accounts, illegally obtained, of the private life of Hugh Grant, Charlotte Church and murdered schoolgirls. To date, however, Lord Justice Leveson has not heard about one story that the public needed to know rather than wanted to know; one investigation that might have made Britain a slightly better place.

Think of the opportunities the press had. In the early years of the last decade, technology gave reporters the power to behave as if they were spies in a secret police force. Yet as far as we know, no one hacked the phones of the powerful to expose the abuse of state power, corruption in the public or private sectors, the mistreatment of the elderly in old people’s homes, the rape of teenagers in children’s homes, the madness in the banks or the neglect of hospital patients.

Worthwhile journalism is not the only item going for a song in Fleet Street’s closing-down sale. Hacks’ old, almost sacred, principle that journalists must protect their sources come what may is as hard to find as a decent story. Almost unnoticed in the furore, Times Newspapers, publishers of the Sunday Times, handed over information to prosecutors that allowed them to charge Vicky Pryce and her ex-husband, Chris Huhne, with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Huhne had suggested that the hacking scandal showed Rupert Murdoch was unfit to run his company. I do not know if his criticism made it easier for Times Newspapers to rat. But I know for sure that journalists would once have ostracised anybody doing so. Now they don’t care what has been done, and are surprised that anyone else does.

I could go on, but I can hear a tabloid editor sneering at the precious values of the “unpopular press”. No one worries about the “public interest” anymore or revealing a source rather than going to jail. Readers want sport, sex, celebrity and casual cruelty, and you are naive if you think otherwise.

Maybe so, but look at where the tabloids’ contempt for serious journalism has led them. When people say phone hacking and bribing police officers are “illegal”, they are right in law but not always right in practice. 

The Anglo-Saxon legal system allows juries rather than judges to determine guilt. If you have exposed a genuine scandal, you can always turn to the jury and say words to the effect of, “I know what I did was technically illegal, and if you were judges you would have to find me guilty. But you are members of a British jury and can follow your consciences. I ask you to recognise that I only broke the law to expose an abuse of power — and acquit me.” The odds are the jury will. Official Secrets Act trials are so rare because the government knows that if leakers of classified documents can say that they acted in the public interest juries will smile at them warmly and let them walk free.

Because nothing the tabloids did would stand up in front a jury, they are defenceless in their moment of crisis. They cannot hold up one illegally obtained story, and argue that they broke the law for a good reason. I repeat, they do not have a single story to justify mass lawbreaking, not even a figleaf of a defence. The bragging editors who made a virtue of pandering to prurient readers no longer seem like cynical populists but arrant fools.

The same process is at work in television. Ever since the days of Greg Dyke, reporters and producers trying to create work of journalistic or artistic merit have heard the same tabloid sneers about the “airy-fairy” and the “elitist”. The BBC no longer justifies itself by upholding the principles of public service broadcasting. Like a tabloid editor seeking to maximise sales, it reasons that it can keep the licence fee — which is in effect a tax on every home in the country — only if it gives the public what it wants to see rather than what it needs to know.

BBC3 shows how far the corporation has run from its old morality. The channel makes no pretence to educate, inform or improve its viewers, but caters for peeping Toms, who can barely read a sentence without their lips going numb.

Take the example of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, and picture a BBC3 producer, probably an Oxbridge graduate, congratulating himself on his ingenuity when he proposed to his masters a new way of feeding pap to the proles. The BBC takes teenage girls to the Mediterranean. It films them as they get horribly drunk, strip, vomit, grope, snog and simulate oral sex. 

Unbeknown to the teenagers, the BBC has also brought out their parents to spy on them. There is no point to the programme beyond voyeurism. The BBC doesn’t examine the dangers of booze and casual sex, or celebrate the many attractions of booze and casual sex. Rather the sniggering commentator switches from enjoying the debauchery to condemning it. He giggles as the girls make fools as themselves and then tuts sympathetically as the straitlaced parents despair of their children. 

Needless to say, the programme is a fraud. No genuinely straitlaced parents would consent to putting their drunk children on television. Tellingly, the presenter does not ask them why they agreed to wash their dirty laundry in public, for proper questioning journalism would spoil the illusion, and reveal the series to be a freak show staged by calculating men and women who enrich themselves at the public’s expense.  

Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents is television’s equivalent of the stories that celebrities’ agents plant in the press. They do it because they want their clients’ names in the papers. The children and adults on the “reality” show do it because they want their faces on television. In both instances, the public sees a manufactured spectacle pretending to be real.

It still feels strange to write “the BBC shows drunk teenagers puking” or the “BBC films them as they show their breasts to the cameras” because I cannot shake off the belief that the BBC is an organisation with a moral purpose, despite the evidence to the contrary. It had better rediscover it soon, or one day its bullish populist managers will be as exposed to their enemies as the humiliated editors of Fleet Street are today.