Phone-hacking isn’t the worst, or even the most common, journalistic excess

Today the innocent Mr Christopher Jeffries accepted an undisclosed sum from no fewer than 8 newspapers that he had sued for libel after they wrote fabricated and highly damaging articles about him following his arrest in connection with the Jo Yeates murder inquiry.

We are currently obsessed with the News of the World, its demise, the hacking of the phones of innocent people, and the Murdoch family. The behaviour of that newspaper, its subsequent lack of openness and honesty, and the disgraceful intrusion into the privacy of fellow citizens it perpetrated, have together rightly incensed us all. But if we allow the drama and sensationalism of this case to blind us to other equally glaring, and much more pervasive, misbehaviour amongst the press then Hack-gate will have caused even more damage by distracting us. The case of Christopher Jeffries is in every way appalling. Bad enough that the police arrested him anyway on what appears to have been the flimsiest of evidence. But even worse is the reporting of his arrest, and the character assassination that the press (and not only the tabloid press – is not The Scotsman a serious newspaper?) apparently felt entirely free to commit. They made up stories that Mr Jeffries was associated with paedophiles. That he had acted “inappropriately” with his former pupils. That he was connected with a previous unsolved murder. That he used his position as a landlord to intrude unreasonably into his tenants’ lives. There was not a word of truth in any of them.

It seems to me impossible to imagine a more terrifying and degrading experience than to be vilified in the gutter press without the slightest justification. Personally, I’d rather have my voice-mails hacked: at least I would have actually said the things that were thus discovered.

Yet where is the outrage at this case? Where are the calls for the resignations of the editors? Why are the proprietors not being hauled before the Select Committee? What happened to Mr Jeffries is not unique. It is merely a particularly blatant and disgusting example of what far too much of the press does all the time. It undermines the entire criminal justice system. It converts terrible events into freak-show prurience. It is, frankly, more significant, more damaging, more immoral than hacking individuals’ voice-mails.

But it sinks without trace. I wonder why. Actually, I know why. Hack-gate has the prominence it does because some sections of the press are at war with other sections. They are over-joyed at getting rid of a competitor. They are luxuriating in being able to point to behaviour even worse than their own. They can’t do the same in this instance because to do so would be to shoot themselves in the foot. It is not in their interests to campaign against outrages that they commit themselves, and which fuel their own circulations. So you will not find any part of the media getting behind a public campaign to deal with the kind of despicable journalism that the Jeffries case exemplifies. But if we care about the truth, about human dignity, and about justice, we should be even angrier about this than about hacking mobile phones.

Perhaps I should stop going on holiday…

It seems that the world is a safer place when I stay at home. I think that on nearly every occasion in the last few years I’ve come back from holiday to discover that some kind of appalling disaster has befallen innocent victims in some part of the world. In 2004 it was the Asian tsunami. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina greeted my return. In 2006, a Russian airliner came down in the Ukraine as I relaxed in my Limousin garden. 2007 saw Greece go up in flames despite France’s decision to remain doggedly wet. In 2008, Madrid hosted the seemingly obligatory plane disaster. The Air France plane crash in Brazil in 2009 jumped the gun a bit, happening in June before I’d managed to leave home. But last year the Chilean mine disaster began during my two weeks off, although it of course eventually had a miraculously happy ending. This year I come back to find that a “lunatic” has wreaked havoc in Norway.

But coincidences are always in the eye of the beholder, and in truth my holidaying habits have nothing to do with the world’s precarious state. In all the years I’ve cited, there were other terrible events that did not occur whilst I was enjoying myself. The human animal loves to make connections where none exist; a fatal flaw in our perceptive apparatus that has left us constantly at the mercy of charlatans throughout the ages. The seemingly inexorable tendency for terrible things to happen whilst I’m away does however have one useful by-product: it makes me more aware of them. The very fact that I can recall all these things is testament to that.

On the other hand, this drive to make false connections, to create some kind of link between random events, to strain after explanation, to fit the world into our convenient and pre-determined sense of causality, is a very dangerous thing indeed. In this recent case of the Norwegian massacre, it’s instructive to note how immediate – and how utterly wrong – was the media’s assumption that this was another example of Islamic extremism. Not only that, but once it became clear that this was not an act of Islamic terrorism, the word terrorism itself sank without trace. Terrorism, it seems, is a reserved occupation. Anders Behring Breivik is not a terrorist, no matter that he terrorised so many: he is mad.

And so, even though these connections and disconnections are not as crass, nor as self-evidently false, as that I began by making between disasters and my holidays, they still serve to mislead us, and to confirm our existing prejudices and sense of what fits with what, nonetheless. I don’t believe that the world would be safer if I stayed at home. But then I don’t believe that only Islamists are terrorists, either. Nor, indeed, that only lone attackers are mad.

Opera North’s got itself in a pickle it didn’t need to be in

Opera North commissioned a piece of “community opera” with librettist Lee Hall, the writer of Billy Elliot. It was to be performed in a primary school. The education authority concerned decided that some of the libretto was “unacceptable”. This was because it contained nine words that apparently small children are so likely to be damaged by that they need to be “safeguarded” from them. The education authority alighted upon the simple safeguarding expedient of preventing them from hearing these pernicious words in the first place. The writer was asked to remove them. He refused. The whole enterprise was called off. Lee Hall has accused Opera North of colluding in homophobic shenanigans. They in turn deny it, blaming the school authorities. So, a right royal mess. For a good summary of the events so far, you might read this from the Guardian.

Many others have already waxed eloquent on the central issues and many of their words are cited in the Guardian article I’ve linked to above. So, beyond the observation that I doubt many 4 yr-olds will be much, or permanently, damaged by hearing the word “queer”, nor by a male character’s stated preference for “lads not lasses”, I’m not going to pursue those matters here. I’m more interested in how Opera North have made such a hash of their handling of the furore, and why they never needed to be in the mess they’re in.

In my opinion it all comes down to the victory of “reputation management” and “media management” over clarity of principle. Opera North’s mistake was most vividly demonstrated by the three separate, and different, statements that it issued on its official blog. It starts with an attempt to please everyone: “Opera North respects Lee’s rights as an author and Beached is a wonderful piece about bringing all different sections of the community together. On the other hand, we can appreciate the viewpoint of the school about when they make the decision to teach PSHE to their pupils.” Lee Hall was most evidently not pleased. So Opera North had another go, pushing the blame squarely towards the school: “As an opera company we have to take the difficult position of accepting that the school is entitled to make this decision and we have to accept that.” That didn’t quite do the trick. So a third, and personal, effort by the General Director, Richard Mantle: “Opera North does not consider the subject matter to require censorship nor do we feel that the inclusion of the themes was inappropriate to the intended audience and participants; and there was no attempt to excise a gay character from the piece. Lee Hall has been willing to introduce changes and make adjustments to the libretto, but in relation to the scene which has caused the most difficulty for the school, Lee refused to make any further change, as is his right as a librettist.” By now Lee Hall is being supported, and the school’s position, by implication, rejected. But of course, it’s all far too late.

But why was the final full-blooded defence of the work preceded first by a lily-livered “neutrality”, and then by a sort of transitional squirming? Because the blog posts were not concerned with the principles, but with massaging the media, and managing Opera North’s reputation. There are two lessons here, and I hope Opera North, and just about every other public body in a tight spot, learn both of them. First, regardless of how you might fear the consequences, decide what you think is right, express it clearly and robustly, and stick to your guns. And second, worrying about your reputation first, and your principles second, will eventually damage your reputation infinitely more, and for longer. Spinning is wrong, and it doesn’t work.