The industry in moral espionage has moved well beyond elite transgressions into the tragic moments of ordinary members of the public. It has brought private detectives firmly into the mainstream of muck, and out of the shadows. It has merged with, and to some extent created, politicians’ need for ‘spin’, for personal image management and careful policy dissemination. It has linked in with other policing agencies, so moving us nearer the complete ‘surveillance society’.

Not only have close relationships between police, politicians and media made muck-raking into a big business, but the very ‘meat and drink’ of media output is now skewed obsessively towards transgression and conflict, at the expense of the positive, conforming, virtuous, and pragmatic.

A politician or police officer might be outstanding but if their image becomes tarnished by a censure that ‘sticks’ their career is over. Journalists themselves rarely hoist themselves by their own petard of course: the current mayhem around and following the News of the World antics and demise is unusual.

The media machine normally sees no value in stopping to consider obsessive moral surveillance as an idiocy ensuring that our politicians are either goody-two-shoes types with pristine private lives and little experience of the real world, or, alternatively, smart-arse smoothies armed with public relations officers, media executive allies, ex-police aids and private detectives. Even worse, that machine ensures that we are likely to get both rolled into one: Eton/Oxbridge old boys, and girls, with money and professional media experience and support – what I’ll call the ‘Boris Cameron effect’, a specific set of sociological conditions which produces PMs and London mayors.

The public wants what the public gets?

Most journalists say the public gets what it wants, and in so doing, they often display an arrogance and disdain for that public. Indeed, that contempt is sometimes openly articulated, like the rapist who says ‘she asked for it’. But, just as wearing a short skirt does not justify rape, a public fascination with gossip is no justification for seedy news-gathering practices nor the corruption of civil servants, politicians or police officers.

Some tabloid journalists spend their working lives exposing and sneering at the weaknesses and foibles of everyone else. These reactionary rabble-rousers always call for severe punishment and tight regulation when they hold others to account, yet cry like children when anyone dares to suggest that media self-regulation is not working. They remind me of, and in some cases actually are occupationally related to, the ‘private shop’ owner, researched overtly by a postgraduate student many moons ago, who angrily chased young couples down the street, when they failed to make a purchase inside his shop, in order to bully them into making one. When interviewed about his attitude to porn, he celebrated conventional family values, denounced porn as ‘filth’, and declared his absolute and heartfelt contempt for his ‘scumbag’ customers. No doubt he was a Tory voter.

Journalists of this type cannot abide public criticism, nor indeed do they much like those other journalists who try very hard, often risking their lives, prison and ruin, to give the public what it needs rather than what it wants. These latter journalists usually have a much higher opinion of the public than do the red-top exploiters.

In its self-created fantasy world of denial, that newspaper, the News of the World, now closed down, was not really popularly known as ‘the news of the screws’ and was not really a forerunner of online porn. In the fantasy world of the anything-goes hack, there is no connection between the porn and newspaper industries, no shared ownership, content or interest. In that world, there is no recognition of the fact that the public is simply contradictory in both sneeking a peek at the ‘news of the screws’ and at the same time deploring the newspaper’s tawdriness, invasion of privacy and obsession with sex.

Yet one UK tabloid, namely the Daily Mirror, are able to provide a better balance between news and entertainment, serious and trivial, insight and scorn.

Like other professional groups, such as academics, lawyers, politicians, police, social workers and business people, some journalists live so deeply inside their own professional cave, or up their own assets, that they think it is simply obvious that the public gets what the public wants – because the public buys their products. Yet members of the public also buy fast cars, fast food, fast sex, porn, class ‘A’ drugs, guns and knives, stuff from sex shops, and vast quantities of alcohol and cigarettes. Should the people who produce and deliver these products also be seen as ‘service-providers’, as popular and therefore unproblematic, and as entitled to regulate their own industries? Imagine the outcry if the sex or drugs trades asked for self-regulation! Or the police! Or academics, teachers, lawyers, nurses and doctors?

Public taste is generally more prurient than virginal, and where it is naive it can be groomed into a cheap thrill it might like but does not need. As sociologist Erving Goffman argued [see Sumner 1994], media play upon people’s need for ‘fateful action’, high risk and vicarious fun, for flirtation with taboos and the dark world suppressed and produced by daytime tedium, vicarious thrills not usually chosen for real; they titillate a taste for the forbidden. The News of the World consciously played on these needs and nurtured them. Now, was that a public service or a private profit?

Certainly, no sociologist will ever accept that public wants are innocent of all grooming and cultivation; some pristine desire deserving of fulfilment. More likely, the scenario is one of a mark set up for a sting – every Sunday morning.

Making excuses and leaving

The News of the World’s former chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, on whose ‘work’ Peter Burden comments at length, was described in The Independent as “a ‘brothel creeper’ par excellence”, as a journalist for whom no story was “too sleazy”, who did not always ‘make his excuses and leave’. So what? One would hope that the liberal Independent advocates the decriminalization of brothels and all related activity anyway, if we are thinking of health and safety, crime reduction, increasing tax revenues, and women’s interests. My concern is more that Thurlbeck said, “I have to operate at the very sharpest end of journalism to bring our readers the stories of crime, vice and deceit amongst the great and the good or the lowest of the low”.

OK, it is vital in a democracy for the media to expose corruption and crimes of the state, and to be fair the News of the World did far more of that than it has been given credit for – I speak as an ex-paperboy of course – but Thurlbeck’s profitable compulsion to supply the public with stories of vice, sleaze and other such naughtiness seems to imply sex itself is a vice. How very English! And how very unliberated!

The job of chief reporter absolutely requires muck-raking, Thurlbeck claimed, and it is true that the newspaper was still selling 3 million copies when it closed, compared with under a million for most broadsheets. The key thing he said was that he ‘had to’. No choice. Now, if a politician tells you there is only one way to tackle a problem, you know they are spinning a yarn – there always several ways of doing something…..

Thurlbeck is wrong. The job does not intrinsically demand it be done only one way. British culture is one major determinant of the way it is done, as is the more universal demand of democracy that we expose public authorities who do not represent us correctly or fairly.

A capitalist press, a toy of the rich like football clubs, requires profits or at least no losses. The job itself does not speak. Journalists define the job, or at least editors decide what job works, under the close supervision of senior executives and managers, and the level [or absence] of profit margins sets a key parameter for their focus. Crime and social deviance pay well, because the public buys it, so there will continue to be a trade in sleaze, sin, vice and crime.

It will however be a highly selective trade: it will include a focus on politicians, police and celebrities but it will not usually include the information-layers or delators, the journalists or newspaper proprietors themselves. Therefore the cookie cannot crumble both ways: either the trade in sleaze is immutable and universal and we must ensure it applies equally to all, including journalists and their proprietors, or it can be changed, limited and moderated through regulation. If it was to be the first, then journalists should accept the media exposure of their sins, stop complaining, and move on – as they constantly tell miscreants who get caught out. If the second option prevails, it needs to be fair and realistic regulation.

Some in Wapping pointed out that the News of the World effectively paid for the Times and the Sunday Times. So what? Al Capone was rumoured to give money to ‘child-saving’ charities. The robber barons built America. Mao’s crimes probably helped make China what it is today. Why do we suppose, contra French sociologist Durkheim, that trying to eradicate all evil will produce unequivocal good and not itself create new problems linked to authoritarianism and excessive zeal? Why do we suppose that superficial goodness is better than a happy integration of progress and mischief? Would a Parliament of saints actually be better at running the country? Or would they too have something to hide? And would the media let them hide it? No doubt it would only be five minutes before the headline came out proclaiming ‘saint blots copybook’. I bet even the Venerable Bede must have spilt his ink sometime.

The point is that there is a terrible assumption behind the News of the World and others like it that the public should get what journalists think it wants. We need to question and develop this idea, and upgrade it once and for all. This is not simply because many journalists have a cynical, jaundiced, negative view of what the public wants, very similar to that of the police who also deal with too much of the seamy side of life. Nor is it because the media, I suspect, rarely do high quality research to find out what the public actually wants deep down.

Public needs and a business needing a public

In my view, the public should get at least what it needs whilst still getting some of what it finds all-too-tasty, and, no, that does not mean nanny-statism or puritanism any more than it would if we were talking about rape, murder or fraud. The icing should be on top of the cake, not the other way round. Do we ‘know’ that the public only wants what it is offered? Don’t circulation figures merely prove that the public likes icing? The public also wants to know if its phones are being tapped and if its police bribe journalists. It wants to know even more if its politicians have slumber parties with media moguls.

Besides, what ever happened to the idea of giving people what they need? No-one would be too impressed if the aid agencies turned up at an African famine armed with barrels of burgers and sacks of chips, would they? This is without even getting into the more intellectual debate about the Reithian objective in television, the idea that television should more often educate and ennoble than titillate and denigrate.

What is ‘the public’ anyway in a morally and culturally pluralistic world without much political consensus? Does this idealized public include the diversity of ethnic minority opinion, or female opinion, or the opinion of critics, socialists, militant unionists, breakaway movements, the Scots, the Welsh, and the Ulster Catholics, or the great mass of the completely indifferent? Do those the press regularly hold to account get their views represented regularly in the editorial choice of reporters’ stories or the way they write them up?

We rarely delve deeply into what the public wants from its media, or discuss what it needs from them in these days of the ‘information society’. Free market assumptions rule: so we get 57 varieties of crap, and around a dozen varieties of real quality. Indeed, even raising these issues opens the inquiring mind up to the knee-jerk media charge of ‘Stalinism’. Yet a free-market media is not a free media or is it in a free market. There is nothing ‘free’ about a compulsion to gossip or an obsession with rule-infraction, and it is certainly not free to start a television station or a newspaper. Nor are the markets out there free of pre-conditioning. If ‘free speech’ is worth anything, the best of it liberates us from our self-destructive tendencies and from the inclinations of others to exploit us. They key to freedom is not a permission but whether we are in a state or personal condition to use it to protect ourselves.

Regulating the lowest common denominator

Close relations between media, politicians and police will no doubt continue, structurally and in practice, as a key feature of all ruling elites in capitalist and existing ‘socialist’ or state capitalist societies, in each of their sectoral interests, and no doubt too the basic unit of content in the press, television, and publishing in capitalism will tend towards the lowest common denominator to gain the largest audiences in competitive markets. Politicians will always be in bed with powerful communicators; police and the media will always feed each other; police and politicians will always work closely together.

So what becomes of investigative journalism on issues of difficulty for the elite, such as democracy, corruption, abuse of power, dangerous liaisons and tax evasion? Can it stay strong enough to keep the media-police-politics alliance honest? Surely it is a good thing when it exposes the secret machinations of power, the failings of institutions, the excesses of the rich and powerful, and the idiocies of our culture?

That kind of investigative journalism, which holds truth to account rather than people has been reduced in size over the last fifty years. It needed to be sub-contracted out for budgetary reasons, allegedly. When universities sacked their painters and sub-contracted out the painting to private firms the cost of painting the ‘estate’ went up massively so whether there was any real budgetary gain Iis debatable.

“Red-top veteran” Ros Wynne-Jones argued recently that the tabloids have produced some excellent investigative reporting over the years, and that is undoubtedly true. Often a tabloid exposes a scandal affecting ordinary working people that the intellectual broadsheets have overlooked. She also rightly observes that your ordinary honourable journalist on the shop floor has “as much to do with the corrupt lines of power running between police, papers and politics as the cashier at your local Barclays has to do with the collapse of the world financial system”. The old-fashioned hard workers and skilled operatives will benefit from a “clean-up” in the industry, she argues, because good journalism always has investigation at its heart.

Well said, but will a return to craftwork happen in journalism any more than in university teaching? Isn’t the world heading towards maximum automation and digitization? Will the online revolution tend to work for democracy in the longer run? Will tabloid journalism ever have its own Arab Spring?

I once organized a conference in Cambridge on Crime, Justice and the Mass Media [Sumner 1981]. Looking back, I remember the riveting but awkward exchanges, often unavoidable when people from different industries meet face-to-face for the first time in public. Then chief crime reporter at the Mail, Peter Burden, argued right from the off that “those in the mass media who probed the wrongdoings of others had many warts in their own culture” [p.16]. Indeed, he has since published a book on the News of the World [2009, available in our bookshop], writes a damning blog on the media, and is interviewed as an authority on the current blood-letting and on the relationships between Wapping and the Met over a long period. But how is it that other journalists only now seem able to pen long and detailed histories of the den of corruption that was the relationship between the Met and the media?

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.  Part One of this post appeared on Inforrm on 3 March 2011.  Part 3 will be published later this week.

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