The old media emperor Rupert Murdoch said something in his apology in the British press that is central to understanding of ‘the hacking scandal’. It explains why politicians in the UK have been talking about ‘information crimes’ and a toughening of the regulation of the media; about creating a new censure of some old and well-known practices they now want to distance themselves from. Murdoch said: “The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. It failed when it came to itself. We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred.”

It seems that few members of the public believe either the Murdochs’ denials of any knowledge of the wrongdoing or politicians’ evasions on how many pyjama parties they had with the Murdochs, or the apparent naivety of senior police in this sorry saga.

The media, the police and the politicians were in each other’s pockets, too much and too often, and it resulted in several unacceptable practices, some of which are criminal. That is very clear from the Leveson enquiry, and while politicians dissemble (combining cleverly to scorn conspiracy theories of their relations with big money), and police struggle to coordinate or find notebooks, too many journalists have been in plain denial – yet over this last 30 years or so they have aggressively put themselves in the business of ‘holding others to account’.

Naming and shaming

Tabloid journalists have over the years relished the naming and shaming of everyone else, demanding jail, the stocks, transportation or public ruination for anyone who pissed in the wrong pot. Their enthusiasm for punitiveness and exclusion is matched only by their intolerance of rehabilitation, forgiveness and decriminalization.

Yet so many of them seem long aware of the bad practice going on for so many years in their own patch, and then they have the cheek to plead for the retention of self-regulation! The rest of us have to put up with minute and detailed surveillance of our every move: our dogs cannot fart without an ASBO slapped on them, yet many journalists, or ‘hacks’ as they call themselves (now we know why after Leveson), appeal to the ‘freedom of the press’ ideology to justify continuing to behave like state spies, sleeping with the enemy to liberate us from our illusions or to get information that we’d already guessed at anyway or couldn’t give a fig for.

Critical journalists concerned about the continuous erosion of rights, liberties, due process and the constitution are derided in the UK as ‘Guardianistas’. Their position is now awkward, because laissez-faire easily drifts into ‘anything goes’ and further deregulation of very private powers. Public offices, or private ones in publically important positions, appear to be beyond the control of the public and their elected representatives on the Commons shop floor. Even the Con-Dem coalition feels forced to regulate, or at least appear to regulate, the power of the forces of social censure: the media, the police and the politicians themselves.

The sanctimonious and self-serving hypocrisy displayed by the professional accusers and gossipers, the punitive barflies of the tabloid press, not known for their innocence, sobriety or modesty, rankles many, especially those other journalists who’ve retained a moral and public conscience (see for example Peter Burden’s highly critical blog listed here). We can now add evidence from the Leveson enquiry to our view of the press as a policing agency, of the police as an agency too often in bed with the media or chasing celebrity figures for dubious purposes (see Dominic Lawson on this), and of politics as not so much the art of the possible as a contract with the public, press and police as to what can be said without damaging re-electability. Money, power and ideology intertwine in a sleazy group grope. ‘Met for a drink?’ was my first title for this article, but it’s not just the Metropolitan police and it’s not just the police, is it?

Regulating jobs for the boys?

One thing that media people rarely accept is that they need regulating. The rest of us seemingly need criminal law, close policing, tight regulation, annual auditing and regular review; but not journalism, because, the hacks now tell us in their moment of self-serving enlightenment, regulation causes more problems than it resolves. Nice u-turn! Well, boys and girls of the media, welcome to our world: the regulated work environment. It isn’t pretty, it is boring, it involves a lot of paperwork and you can ‘fail’ before being publically ‘named and shamed’.

Mary Dejevsky in The Independent argued that, while outright bribery is not common in the UK, “freebies among friends and jobs for the boys” are. Apart from acknowledging the regular irregular payments alleged from police to press, she could also have recognized the power of monopolies in the media, or networks of interlocking elites sustained by marriage and education, or the lack of press accountability, or the persistently macho culture of the modern state, despite more females in the press, police and parliament, compared with academia or the creative industries – although, after Leveson, it is clear that policing and the press are also very much ‘creative industries’ staffed by artists of various kinds

When I first started teaching ‘Crime, Justice and the Media’ as a postgrad criminology course in Cambridge around 1980, crime was a boys’ game, a macho battle where the players often ‘met for a drink’. But, sidestepping a debate about the macho way many of the girls ‘do business’ today, there is a more fundamental analysis that goes beyond male culture to explain the crime focus of the governing classes: that crime ‘focus’ is actually a key industry in the construction and maintenance of social and political authority.

Virtue is not the main aim in the industry of naming and shaming so much as the retention of the balance of power in a conflict- and crime-ridden society. Some ‘villains’ have to be onside to ensure the majority are kept offside, and sometimes the rules are bent for the benefit of national security or the integrity of the state, allegedly. Crime and non-crime mix: it’s a results game. Power has to be seen to be strong, through mass incarceration and regular demonization of criminals and deviants, and of course control agencies singing from the same hymn sheet – without punishing too many elite miscreants.

Media are now so integrated with politics and policing that there are few agencies or individuals who are ‘outside’ the media-politics-police complex and powerful enough to regulate that complex effectively. This new church of the modern media, is perhaps best, or most safely, attacked by the old church: don’t the tabloids and the MPs hate it when the Archbishop of Canterbury comments on social and political issues!

Some journalists were initially hysterically defensive about the closure of The News of the World and the current investigations into allegations of ‘hacking’, ‘blagging’, ‘binology’ and other such tawdry or criminal behaviours – until they grasped that it will soon be ‘business as usual’ again because there really is no one at the moment to enforce any new laws on ‘information crimes’. Then, in the safety of this knowledge, they told us that their sins are perfectly normal today so we’d ‘better get used to them’.

The fact is that much media work has come to centre upon ‘holding others to account’, social censure, and laying information against individuals and groups (delation – to use a good, very old but short, word) and the mass media has become an important agency of law enforcement and a powerful moral lobby. ‘Holding others to account’, political agenda-setting and delation are now core business for mass media, so it is no surprise that it expands apace, grows excessive and outrageous, and resists regulation from the outside.

I doubt whether the Leveson enquiry will change any of that without creating a new and independent institution, a media watchdog with teeth and no corrosive connections with the media, police or politics. What chance!? Indeed, look at the arguments recently put to protect the internet from governmental interference: the chattering classes tend to resist interference with their attempts to collect large numbers of eyeballs. Universities survive by getting ‘bums on seats’; media become ‘mass’ and attract advertising revenue by collecting eyeballs.

Deviance, dirt and the industrialization of ‘crime talk’

From the Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’ here and True Confessions magazine in the 1920’s USA onwards, the modern media has exploited crime, anti-social behaviour, social conflict, deviance, sin, vice and the whole negative in general, to create huge markets of fascinated readers, living vicariously through the sins and sadness of the rich and famous; markets now threatened by the internet. ‘Lord Lucan ate my hamster’ is great for our legislators. Politicians have benefitted greatly from this diversion and distraction from their seriously failing policies, although they have to work hard to avoid themselves being drawn into the vortex of vilification.

Quality investigative journalism into issues that are vital to the idea of a functional body politic, such as civil liberties and constitutional protection, has declined markedly, in direct correlation with the rise of vast quantities of trivial gossip and meaningless drivel, often dug up by sub-contracted private detectives.

Unable to wait for politicians to mess up in public every now and again, the press need a sustainable sewer of sleaze from all and sundry for a daily and weekly mass market censure, and therefore they also need the professional methods of the espionage agencies, whether state, industrial or individual. A lounge bar market in crime information has grown into a multi-agency industry digging up all manner of crime, deviation and dirt.

The Murdoch-owned Sunday Times published a detailed account by Michael Gillard (17 July 2011, pp.20-1) on the “booming information trade” started “decades” ago at Briefs, the bar (now closed) near the Inner London Court, where lawyers, criminals, journalists, and police ‘met for a drink’. This bar-room trade clearly has a long history in the UK and once started it was probably inevitable that it would overstep the mark. Once crime-related information and moral gossip were traded like any other commodities, for substantial gain, it was likely in an advanced capitalist society that this would mature from cottage industry to big business.

Pop crime talk without criminology

The business of popular crime talk does not involve criminologists much in the construction of its content; criminology has indeed become a big business benefitting from the media’s obsession with crime and transgression (see Nils Christie, Crime Control as Industry. London: Routledge, 2000, on how criminology feeds very profitably off social control, now a major industry ratcheting up the incarceration rates and levels of surveillance).

As a critical criminologist working at Cambridge for many years, with a low income and no private wealth (although, like a hedge fund, I did own a lot of debts), I confess that I stopped responding to the constant calls from the media after a while – for several reasons:

[a] they wanted the knowledge, information or ideas you’d worked hard to produce in order to sell their products yet were never ever prepared to pay a penny for it,

[b] they only wanted shallow and ‘acceptable’ platitudes, routine stereotypes and standard prejudices – they were very conservative in what they wanted or could publish,

[c] they were unscrupulous about attributing and often crudely stole your words or ideas, and even your disks (yes, really),

[d] they always tried to get you to cram complex ideas, developed over years of research, into a few words in a few seconds, and

[e] when they did try to write up what you said on their own they got it embarrassingly wrong.

I know I was not the only academic at that time who steered clear of the media, but it was a shame because, for all its pitfalls, I did and do believe in publicizing criminology, err, obviously, as a key component in any serious democracy’s debates about crime and social control. Moreover, academic criminology’s avoidance of the media can only reinforce the Neanderthal output on crime and justice in the tabloids and in most television crime drama, (especially that from the USA). However, I was not going to allow myself to be ripped off or misrepresented, and in any case I soon learned that this country only has a ‘free press’ for certain, broadly conservative, and fairly thoughtless, evidence-free views.

Although themselves conservative, with the radical elements mostly filtered out, the findings of criminological research or analysis rarely resonate with what the media want to hear. The media industries are less interested in truths they cannot sell than in stories, speculative or not, that millions will buy or watch. Why else, when crime is the most popular subject in the media, do we not see or hear at length from criminologists?

The fact is that it would be hard even for conservative criminologists and liberal number-crunchers to distort the truth about crime and criminal justice enough to satisfy the media and its imaginary public, even if they wanted to. The only place the truer stuff leaks through into the media is through drama, via playwrights like Jimmy McGovern. That’s OK with authorities, I suspect, because it’s put down as fiction.

As an example from experience, I once scripted a programme on murder for an ITV series around an argument about the masculinity of physical violence, noting that the corpses, and supposed but absent victims, were mostly female and the suspects were all male in a sample of real murders given to me to analyze, and was promptly told that I couldn’t say that men were more likely to murder because of conventional masculine norms because the programme went out at 9 o’clock, prime-time, and would upset too many ‘normal’ men and ruin their sleep. I was firmly told that truth had nothing to do with it. I did not waste my time any further.

It is not widely recognized, but truth is a key production value for academics and intellectuals, however imperfect it is, whereas it seems low down the list for most television people and much lower than entertainment. As Camille Paglia once argued (Sex, Art and American Culture. New York: Vintage, 1992), against the tendency of political correctness to discourage critical thought, universities are not there to make people feel comfortable. Or they weren’t….times are changing….bums on seats means cultivating the humane containment function of the expensive holiday camp….not that students cost the national purse anywhere near clients of the incarceration industry, as this video  shows with such clarity in its objection’s to Canada’s proposed Omnibus Crime Act.

The public tends to get stuff on crime that media people think they can sell to it without a fuss or without the advertisers complaining. The industrialization of crime information and ‘vivid tales’ means that the lowest common denominators of prejudice and ignorance, conservatism and vicarious pleasure, rule. So, detectives in crime dramas are no-nonsense individualists, bad guys are more often black, criminals always get caught or killed and are guilty, probation officers like corporations and politicians are air-brushed out, the press merely report and never contend, there is always a body in murder cases, and no-one is ever convicted on a mere interpretation or pure incompetence.

Television producers carefully raise a level of anxiety amongst us, through crime and violence on the screen, only to defuse and assuage it through the devices of a schizoid super/spider/bat/man, part-normal part-alien, or a genius schizoid detective from Oxbridge such as Sherlock or Morse, part-professor part-depressive, whose access to the darkness of ‘the other side’ calms the nerves better than any late night milk drink.

It is their game; they trade on it. Crime talk is normally aimed at profit, not truth. It is a form of moral recycling. The media dig up the dirt, launder it free of social, political and cultural implications, and re-present it as the triumph of good over evil and the permanent futility of dissent.

Colin Sumner is the editor of Crime Talk and a former Professor of Criminology and Head/Dean of the School of Law, University of East London

This post originally appeared on Crime Talk and is reproduced with permission and thanks.