Back in the day, the analogue and offline day, when a plenitude of images did not circulate, one of the most vital jobs in the newspaper industry was that of the “picture-snatcher” — the reporter, often a cub/cadet, who would accompany a senior colleague to the house of a grieving widow whose family member had just been trampled by a horse/died of dropsy/ etc, and, while the bereaved was being engaged in conversation, snatch a picture of the decedent from the mantelpiece, and then sprint back to the office with it.
As the writer and polemicist Ben Hecht recalled it in his memoir A Child of the Century — one of the greatest ever pictures of urban life, turn of 20th century Chicago in that case — some men never left the picture-snatching game at all, and commanded huge sums for their services. Eventually under pressure of competition, they began breaking into peoples’ houses, impersonating police officers, and eventually, simply forcing their way in, breaking the frame, pulling the picture out — perhaps one of the few still owned by the family — and force their way out again.
The rise of cheap, home photography would eventually render the picture-snatcher extinct, but not before the practice had become a race to the lower depths, one in which the thrill of the hunt overtook any notion, not merely of basic decency, but if basic proportion. What was it for, this crazed destructive hunt? Not for the slight commercial advantage to be gained, not for the participants anyway.
It was for the feeling of being above the law, of being set against the common herd, the sense of being of the elite. Eventually, inevitably, it was driven by a contempt for the public and for its readers — if they were willing to believe the crap that was being daily manufactured for them, what were they worth in any case?
With the full revelation of the phone-hacking scandal, now enveloping News Corporation, both in the UK (through its UK subsidiary News International) and worldwide, it is becoming clear that a similar process of degeneration has taken place in Murdoch-world. For around a decade, British tabloid newspapers have been employing bottom-feeder “private investigators” to “hack” phones — a fancy word for retrieving messages from the phones of people who have neglected to change their message-retrieval pin from the 0000 factory setting.
News International’s News of the World was not the only title to employ the services of hacker Glenn Mulcaire; he also worked for the Daily Mail, the most sanctimonious and moralising of all the UK tabloids. But it appears that at some point, News International became his exclusive buyer, and that the nature of the phone-hack game changed — from A-list celebs (or the sad B-list Brit soap stars the News of the World audience can’t get enough of), to political figures, and then to victims of crime.
No-one really cared about celebrity phone-hacking; the routine was part of the sado-masochistic relationship we all have to celeb culture. But when the royal family were hacked, it could no longer be ignored — and also provided a means by which the scandal could be limited to one reporter, royal-watcher Clive Goodman, and defined as a rogue event.
The criminally and laughably negligent behaviour of the police were of immense assistance in this, but when it became clear that serving politicians had been hacked, even they could no longer ignore it. Yet even that could not engage the public’s outrage — there is, after all, a case for journalists using any means at their disposal to scrutinise political life. News International’s hacking of pollies was mendacious, and obsessed with who’s up who, but the issue was sufficiently muddy for the process to continue as an elite preoccupation. By now, the process clearly involved the whole of News of the World apparatus, and relevant information was being shared with other News Corp titles.
Moral leadership at this point would have put a brake on proceedings, recognising a difference between a sales-driven org hacking celebs, and randomly tapping into the proceedings of elected politicians. Instead, the specific culture of News International encouraged the reverse, a replay of the old Chicago attitude in which not merely the general public, but other news organisations were inferior to the Murdoch cult.
So when the time for a real moral decision came along, the organisation had lost any governance — and no-one could decide not to cross the line, and not hack the phone of the family of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl. Dowler had been murdered, but at that time she was still listed as missing. Murdoch’s hacks hacking into Dowler’s mobile erased two messages. Though the messages were of no importance in themselves, the act gave the family hope that their daughter was still alive.
The reaction to this and other depredations — where fair-game “celebrity” came to mean anyone who suffered a personal tragedy that could be used as raw material for heartwarming tales of true courage — has been one not merely of disapproval, but disgust, and has genuinely taken News Ltd by surprise. But of course it would.
Disgust is that most visceral of physical reactions that, when triggered by a social act, indicates a breach of the most basic sense of human reciprocity, of what is owed by human beings to each other. Having separated itself, as an organisation, from any sense of common human relations, that basic override has fallen away for many News Corp myrmidons. They can no longer recognise what stuff might get the humans upset — so upset that advertisers are now withdrawing en masse.
News International has elevated nihilism to the status of a guiding principle, and that has become not merely a moral but an operational disaster for them — making it possible that the decision to allow it to take a controlling interest in BSkyB may be re-examined and rescinded, and losing them the Australia Network contract.
Murdoch’s pursuit of power without content, as a way to plug a hole in the world, has spread to every part of his organisation, and to its leading players. The sort of people attracted to, and staying with Murdoch, come from the ranks of, to quote a dead Russian “the sort of journalists who do not need to be bribed because they are sycophantic by nature.”
They live off his dark energy in the way that small electrical appliances can be powered at a distance, by a Tesla coil. In Australia, this reverse morality has turned the national broadsheet into a variant of the Baader-Meinhof gang — it spends so much of its energy trying to regain captured comrades and settling scores that that becomes its whole project.
Such vengefulness has become, of late, in Australia, truly vicious — its most recent campaign against a public figure it disagreed with was an attempt to not merely finish her politically, but to destroy her psychologically. It was an unmistakeable sign of degeneration at the highest level, and by many of the people at mid-level corrupted by the vacuity of those at the top.
They should take a look at some of the figures involved in the UK hacking scandal — burnt-out, used-up sleazebags, dumped and deserted, with Rebekah Brooks about to join the pile. That is their retirement plan. They’ll disappear, no fanfare, and no picture in the paper. That’s their problem. Ours is that an organisation which fosters genuine evil wants to run our international broadcast network.