Friday, July 8, 2011

End of the World?

As I sit and reflect on the stunning revelations, actions and developments of the News International story I think it’s important to try and step back and think about the wider picture. There will inevitably be countless more facts, e-mails, twists and turns in this story because of the nature of the history of it. It is a complex web of a culture that has pervaded our wider society for a long time.

I have always been uncomfortable with the nature of tabloid investigation and sensationalism, I have witnessed it from the sidelines numerous times, a bizarre symbiotic relationship between news media, politics and entertainment.

As a naive entrant into the world of media I believed in the strong tenets of noble journalism, I believed that it was all in the realms of Woodward and Bernstein, a somewhat romantic rose tinted view of the industry. This continued in my training in broadcasting having been taught by excellent broadcast journalists such as Peter O’Kill and Sue Roberts, it was an arena that I wanted to pursue.

But then I saw a side of myself that I didn’t like in a news simulation training exercise where we performed the duties of journalists in a major catastrophe. The simulation was to cover a fake disaster and cover the story from a hospital. It was mainly a training exercise to aide the hospital management in how to cope with a major news story whilst also dealing with a mass of wounded people. It was a full simulation with actors and make-up, us with cameras and sat trucks etc playing our part. We felt the pressure to get the story, and I realised that you soon will do anything to achieve your goal when under that level of pressure. We applied subterfuge, lies, coercion and all manner of tricks to get the story – the “victims” were mere pieces in the game and we forgot about the humanity and I recall it scaring me, I looked into the abyss and it certainly looked back at me. It was a strange experience and I wasn’t entirely comfortable.

A year later I was making a documentary in the midst of the 1997 election campaign about a political outsider running a campaign in the provinces, whilst doing this I constantly came into contact with journalists of all ilks from tabloid to broadcast, I was going for an observational feel rather than investigative so I observed the different journalists that buzzed around the candidate like flies at a barbeque, what struck me was the arrogance and mightier than thou attitude of a high volume of them, it never felt like they were drawing a story out, they had a narrative that they needed to substantiate come what may. I also felt the sting of the media manipulators that handle the candidates too, the other side of the relationship so to speak. Having inadvertently caught something on camera that suddenly became news worthy, so I also understand what it is like to be heavily leant on by the handlers, the whole thing put me off politics and news journalism. I wrote in my journal at the time that this strange relationship would corrupt the inner workings of the political media set if it continued. I was not remotely surprised by the whole Kelly affair, nor am I surprised by the News of the World affair – it was all self evident for me as an observer at that time and I tried to move away from it.

However, it was hard to get away from, shortly after I did a stint at a low rent cable channel that just happened to be owned by a tabloid newspaper, this is where I saw the more typical traits of tabloid journalism being applied to “factual entertainment”, working with ex newspaper hacks to make “documentaries” in the style of tabloid news stories, I recall one title was "Is Glenn Hoddle Mad?". I was sent to hound and door step people on stories of no real merit, they were mere salacious tittle tattle and my cameraman who was an ex-pap photographer may have been one of the most odious people I have ever worked with. He also didn’t seem to understand that constantly shouting out the rather clichéd rants that paps do to get a photo from celebs doesn’t really work when operating a video camera with sound, therefore luckily rendering some of the footage useless. I also got to see how an editor sets the narrative and then you are under pressure to merely find material to illustrate that narrative by whatever means, it’s an unpleasant feeling and I have sympathy for those that do it day in and day out, I also understand how this can lead to such events that are now unfolding if you forego integrity for income.

The last chapter in my experiential tale is then being an entertainment show producer and regularly doing the premieres and hotel press kits for a film show and standing side by side many paps and tabloid journos whilst waiting for little events to happen. I’ve seen the paps on the rocks outside the Hotel Du Cap with listening devices and telephoto lenses during Cannes desperately trying to get something other than just sunburnt. I’ve also seen the stars who will grab a girl in a wheelchair for a photo opportunity then push her away once the shot is taken or the PR person who will bully you into stopping an interview even against the subject’s will . What will always astound is the banter amongst these people, the arrogance and contempt they show not only for their subjects but their audience too, it is truly gods and monsters stuff. This has been the downfall of all media, politics and entertainment in my opinion, this bacteria ridden little microcosm of a culture that has fed off of itself, it’s spread through so many parts of our mainstream and you have to ask why?

As we sit on our high and mighty thrones to condemn all this wrongdoing can we really say we had no part in it? Why do we have an insatiable appetite for salacious stories? Surely we feed the beast with circulation numbers and audience figures? What is it about our society that so enjoys feeding on the banal and salacious gossip, that enjoys righteous indignation about others behaviour? Have we become a suburban cul-de-sac of curtain twitchers and over the fence gossipers?

We fed these machines, we bought the papers, we elected the MP’s, we riddled ourselves with debt. We played the game too and as we disintermediate some of these intermediaries in that process, will we actually change our society or will we actually continue to in our appetite by spreading gossip, xenophobia, tittle tattle etc via social networks or blogging and just continue – I fear we are there already as I see the online equivalents of the News of the World appear as groups and pages on Facebook, Blogs or cliques in Twitter.

It is good that a stranglehold of an inner circle is being broken within the media industry, it has been too pervasive for too long, but it is just the tip of the iceberg above the water in a cultural context.

I'll make a prediction that we will see the social media equivalent of this story within the next 10 years.

In the mean time, here are some old clips when I tried to allude to the absurdity of it all:


  1. Very thought-provoking. I've been thinking recently that it's wrong for us to get so angry about Milly Dowler and not to be angry about the invasion of celebrity privacy. De-humanising celebrities ("they're asking for it") is part of this problem. Either it's wrong for everyone or it isn't wrong at all. By picking and choosing the victims, we are acting as arrogantly as any tabloid editor.

    But why do we chase all this filth, as you so rightly ask? For me, stopping buying gossip rags felt like part of growing up, but many of my peers still do. Perhaps part of our responsibility is to be more critical when our friends and family spend money on this harmful rubbish.

    I remember very clearly during my first year of Uni an incident with a friend that shamed me hugely. Someone had told me a piece of gossip about one of our tutors, which I unthinkingly passed on to my friend as though it were a piece of currency. I can still remember the look of disgust on his face and the silence that followed. That had such a huge effect on me that I pretty much stopped gossiping at all after that - possibly an extreme reaction, but it shows what a healthy dose of shame can achieve.

  2. Thanks for the feedback and adding to the piece, I've added some video from around the time I was covering entertainment events etc, you're right it's not just about whether it's a celebrity or not. I never did read the tabs, just didn't find it interesting - I prefer not to know about actors and musicians, I like them for their performances, this is why I tried to generally avoid interviewing my favourite actor/ directors so as not to be let down or worse dislike them on personality. Strange but true.