It is difficult to comprehend the full cynicism and inhumanity of the tabloid press until you have confronted it. Sometimes its oligarchs give you a spontaneous glimpse of the value systems of the tabloid empires. I was on a panel with Kelvin MacKenzie for a debate about the law on privacy some years ago (very much back in the public eye), and an audience member asked him whether he had ever given any consideration about the impact of the stories he published on its subjects. He replied without hesitation that he had not.
One expression of that cynicism manifests itself in the process whereby newspapers both create and then destroy celebrities. Tabloid journalists justify their treatment of celebrities, akin to that of farm animals by abattoirs, on the basis that since celebrities make lots of money from being celebrities, any attempt to protect any part of their privacy should be rejected out of hand.
The argument goes that having once been permitted entry into the celebrity’s living room the tabloid press should have access to their bedroom, bathroom and medicine cupboard too. The tabloid press promotes this rationale because of the income it can earn by conducting guided tours for its readers of these private parts.
The primary income earners from celebrities are the tabloid newspapers which so mercilessly exploit them. The general public must be convinced there is a moral justification for this plunder of individuals’ private lives before they hand over money to those responsible for it. But for the tabloid press, celebrities have a sell-by date. The point comes when the tabloids decide that they have exploited a particular celebrity as far as possible by building them up. At that point, the money is made by destroying them as publicly and cruelly as possible.
If you are a woman, then you are particularly vulnerable to this destructive commoditisation. If, as in the case of former Big Brother contestant Chanelle Hayes, you have put on weight since you were last in the public eye, you are held up for ridicule by the tabloids for having fallen off the perch of physical perfection expected of the female of the celebrity species.
Alternatively if you are merely careless enough (as a female celebrity) to grow old, you will be the subject of close-ups of your wrinkles, cellulite, sagging breasts etc. The male-dominated tabloid press will punish mercilessly any woman who does not come up to the aesthetic standards it demands, especially if that woman is perceived to have profited from meeting those standards in the past.
The tabloid press has also honed its own special brand of hypocrisy. While Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were busily hurling allegations of adultery and betrayal from News International front pages at other people, they were engaged in their own adulterous affair with each other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not find its way into the pages of the Sun or News Of The World; and Andy Coulson tried very hard via his legal team to avoid his affair with Brooks emerging during the course of his criminal trial.
One of the reasons why the Sun On Sunday’s pursuit (under the leadership of Brooks) of the individual whose alleged sexual impropriety the paper wishes to splash over the front pages is so grotesque is because News International applies one set of rules for itself, and another for everyone else. This is the organisation that insists on the freedom to regulate itself rather than being regulated independently.
One of my favourites among the regular Fleet Street hypocrisies is the “fat cat” label. Senior newspaper executives such as Brooks and Paul Dacre measure their remuneration in millions. In their newspapers people who earn more than £40,000 will be castigated as “fat cats”, despite earning a tiny fraction of the pay of their accusers.
Woe betide you if you have the temerity to bring to public attention the wrongdoing of the dark lords of Fleet Street, who will go to any length to discredit such activity and those who undertake it – as I have learned from my own experience. Two lawyers who led the phone-hacking inquiry were pursued by private investigators hired by News International. It is a remarkable feature of the tabloid press that it is constantly claiming the right to expose the wrongdoing of others, yet will go to almost any length to cover up its own.
This was the ultimate purpose of the Press Complaints Commission, and no less the purpose of its replacement, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Contrary to the will of our elected representatives and the country as a whole, this will provide the latest means whereby the press (and tabloids in particular) can ensure that, while its allegations against outsiders are published in letters measured in inches, their own wrongdoings are set out in millimetres. That is perhaps the most heinous hypocrisy of all.
Jonathan Coad is a Partner in the Lewis Silkin’s Creative World team. He acts for both Claimants and Defendants. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathan_coad
This post originally appeared in the International Business Times and is reproduced with the permission of the author.