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The level of public anger and distress over the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone and the allegations that bereaved service families may also have been intruded upon in this manner, may just have brought about what Peter Walker, the former Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police, speaking on Radio 5 yesterday (6 July 2011), called a “step change”. He also called for questions as to how we “have collectively allowed [the situation] to develop”.
For the first time in perhaps two decades, there are clear indications that politicians in power or who aspire to power, are willing to criticise Rupert Murdoch and News International.
That politicians have 'run scared' of this vast media empire for so long raises troubling questions about the power it exercises, not just through the political alignment of the 40 per cent of UK newspapers in its ownership, but by its capacity and willingness to pry into the private lives of MPs, political candidates, police officers and all who hold public office.
There is open admission that the Department of Culture Media and Sport Select Committee decided not to subpoena Rebakah Brooks (CEO of news International and former Sun editor) to seek clarification about information she gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee on payments made to the police by the Sun newspaper, because of members' anxiety over the intrusion into their private lives which they feared might follow.
This is the point at which society needs to ask itself some searching questions about what is legitimately in the public interest and what is simply ugly voyeurism.
As long as the public is willing to treat the personal failings, weaknesses and inconsistencies to which we are all subject as a spectator sport, there will be media outlets happy to meet that market. We need to exercise more discernment, humility and compassion in considering the lives of others.
To follow, for example, every detail of the disordered and painful lives of Kerry Katona or Amy Winehouse cannot be justified. A moment of reflection might remind us that such car-crash existences bring untold pain to the individual concerned and to their families.
Similarly, the infidelities of celebrities are not our business and to dabble in them for passing titillation can only add to the pain of betrayed partners and blameless children. This is information to which we have no right and should we should not demand that it be supplied.
Politicians whose private lives are in direct conflict with their public pronouncements may justifiably be accused of hypocrisy and, according to the amount of influence they have over the formulation and implementation of policy, their exposure could be considered as being in the public interest.
The fact that Fred Goodwin was conducting an extra-marital affair with a senior colleague at the time of the collapse of the Bank of Scotland raised legitimate questions as to his overall command of the institution under his management. These are areas where a free press, rather than exploiting a grubby market, may exercise a valuable democratic function. It is the duty of a morally alert society to discern the difference.
To permit every failing of public figures to be investigated and laid out for our entertainment and delicious indignation is evidence of a lack of humility and compassion. There will be few of us who could hold up our heads if the indiscretions of youth and occasional shortfalls of judgement or consistency in maturity were to be dissected for public consumption.
If our politicians are to live in constant fear of gratuitous intrusion and embarrassment, they cannot exercise their democratic function with the independence and integrity which we have a right to expect. Nor will honest and capable people choose to enter public life. We cannot expect to be served by plaster saints and we should reserve our demands for knowledge of private lives to situations which call for the exposure of corruption and dishonest practice.
If politicians have been bent to the will of Rupert Murdoch and police officers have been suborned, that power has in part been given to News International by us, the citizens of a democracy.
Perhaps the journalistic nadir to which the News of the World has descended may prove to be the turning point in what we are prepared to countenance.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet