Tits, crime and patriotism

06Jul11

I’m a working journalist, and once hacked someone’s mobile phone. It was my own, and a work experience student showed me how to do it sometime in the late 1990s. Phone-hacking started out as a schoolkid prank; there was no particularly dark art to it. Same with finding out more intimate stuff about people; there are some individuals with access to police records, medical records etc. whose favours can be bought right cheap. “Hacking” makes it sound clever when it’s nothing of the sort. It’s just sleazy and illegal.

More to the point, I’m not aware of a single case in the UK in which such methods have been used for a greater public good, such as investigating official corruption or crooked business practices.

It’s become fashionable in recent times to say that Britain’s tabloid press is “out of control” as though it was some teenager that’d gone off the rails. Aside from the phone-hacking, there’s the alleged flouting of sub judice laws to condemn suspects in criminal cases before they’ve even been charged.

The thing is, though, Britain’s popular press has always been like this, and there’s always been middle class moral panics over its behaviour.

I’m not defending anyone’s actions. Not defending it at all. Just saying.

How did it come to this?

Well here’s one answer:

Britain’s popular press originated in the 18th century with public hangings. No, I’m being deadly serious. In the 1700s, public hangings were often huge and popular spectacles, especially if the felon concerned was particularly hated or if s/he was a particularly flamboyant thief or robber.

These things were big events in every town. In London it was at Tyburn, in Bristol the gallows were on St Michaels Hill or, later, on the top of the gateway to the gaol down by the New Cut.

At these events, unscrupulous hacks and printers would sell leaflets or pamphlets containing the life stories and “confessions” of the condemned man or woman. Often these were complete works of fiction. And from here we got the Newgate Calendar, and from there the sensational 19th century magazines such as the Illustrated Police News, and on to the popular daily and Sunday papers of the 20th century.

Appropriately enough, it was the News of the World which led the way. First published in the 1840s and aimed at an increasingly literate working class, it eventually hit on the formula which has stood the popular press in good stead ever since – sex, murder and waving the flag.

And if you wonder why, in its desperate drive for readers, the tabloid press will apparently stoop so low as to hack the phones of crime victims, remember it all started with public hangings.

They used to say that if you went to a public execution, the thing to do was not to watch the killing, but instead to look at the faces of the crowd as they watched it.

Not wishing the labour the earlier point about Princess Diana, but we get the press we deserve, like we get the politicians, health service, armed forces (etc.) that we deserve. The red tops’ descent into the gutter didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened because just as people used to watch executions in fascination, their descendants are prepared to pay to read all about it.

Now how much do you reckon Sky or some other TV firm would be prepared to pay to show public executions?

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7 Responses to “Tits, crime and patriotism”

  1. 1 Harry Mac

    They may have started that way and will end that way but I seem to remember when The Daily Mirror, and even The Sun, had a sort of morality.

  2. 2 thebristolblogger

    Yes. We appear to have a good old fashioned moral panic on our hands.

    The fact that Asst Commissioner Yates of the Met appears to be bent and working for a media outlet seems to be passing everyone by too.

    • Ahem, by which you mean “there are questions over the earlier conduct of phone hacking inquiries which Assisstant Commissioner Yates needs to answer.” Is he working for a media outlet? Or do you mean Andy Hayman?

      • 4 thebristolblogger

        Oh Asst Commissioner Hayman. Fired from the Met after killing Menezes and being involved in various shagging and expenses escapades?

        Didn’t he become a NoTW columnist? After ‘investigating’ them natch.

  3. ‘Times’ columnist, not NOTW, I believe.

    • 6 thebristolblogger

      Should have Googled. But it’s quicker to take a punt innit?

  4. 7 Art of the Impossible

    “middle class moral panics”

    Oh yes, there’s not much that nice people like more than to indulge in some satisfying moral highgroundism and smug intellectual snobbery about the amusements, perceived tastelessness and moral depravity of the common folk, is there?


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