The events of the last week seem to have constituted something of a revolution against the press. For obvious reasons most coverage has focussed on the hostility to the Windsors, and their changed role in the new world, but for every remark I have heard criticising the royal family I have heard ten critical of the media. Still, the public, having accomplished this revolution, finds itself with the dilemma of all successful revolutionaries: how to perform the tasks of the overthrown institution. The vile reign of the media may have been brought to an end, but we still want news.: The Sun is said to have sold a million copies extra last week, and the same congregation as applauded Earl Spencer’s attack on the press picked clean the stands of Evening Standards outside Westminster Abbey the moment the service was over.
For any editor, the last week must hve been something like the Cultural Revolution in China. You might at any moment be denounced for bourgeois deviationism, abandoning the path of the People. Instead of being solely at the mercy of a distant proprietor, you also found your job was held on sufferance from the people, who might at any moment step in and denounce traditional practices. The West Country newspaper which asked James Hewitt for comment, as a matter of routine, was furiously denounced by its readers for even mentioning the rotter at a time like this.
As with all successful revolutions, there has also been a growing feeling among the victims that they may have deserved it. The most dramatic act of self-criticism came in a Daily Telegraph leader, which is worth quoting at some length, because it displays a remarkable coherence of argument and feeling.
"The Daily Mail published what was the most disgusting of all the front pages in a uniquely disgusting week for the tabloids. ‘Charles Weeps Bitter Tears of Guilt" is shouted, and attached what purported to be an account of a walk the Prince had taken on the moors at Balmoral on the second morning after his ex-wife’s death. How the paper could possibly have known what he thought was never explained, but the two writers told us that he ‘stalked the moors, asking: why why why?’, blaming himself for the Princess’s death. So far as we now, no formal rules of press conduct were broken by this article. No law could be formulated to prevent such an article being written. Yet this was an intrusion far worse than a blurred shot of some incident by a swimming pool. A paper which proclaims its devotion to ‘family values’ was doing what no one who really cares for any family would ever do — inventing feelings, hinting at blame, prying with a horrible pharisaical precision, into the most tragic aspects of other people’s lives. The tabloids do this every single day of their existence. Their targets are the Royal Family, famous people, the children of famous people, but also whatever unfamous people happen to stray into their pitiless spotlight. Their attack on the principle of privacy is pervasive, and it is evil."
Evil is not a word that the Daily Telegraph throws about. And there is certainly a case that the merciless leering and jeering of the press approaches that condition; and that we all took for granted that there was nothing which could be done about it. Any newspaper that really wanted to put a crimp on the persecution of Diana could have monstered the paparazzi themselves: a week of intensive and intrusive coverage of how the Princess was herself covered would have been a brilliant wheeze, and perfectly workable for a sufficiently rich paper. None did it. the nearest was Marianne MacDonald’s piece in the Independent on Sunday some months ago, which concluded with distressing prescience "Someone could get killed, and it might not be a photographer."
As the Daily Telegraph leader points out, a change of practice would require "not a change of rules, but a complete change of heart … there is not the slightest sign of such a change of heart."
As the Daily Telegraph points out, the problem is not the paparazzi (the same issue of the Daily Mail as carried its own decision to use no more paparazzi pictures credited 15 photographers for its special report on the funeral. Few of them will have been on staff.) And some of the papers that deplored the intrusion on the Royal Family’s grief ran pictures of reaction to the suicide bombs in Jerusalem that showed people in an unbearable intensity of emotion. What makes a judgement there especially difficult is that the Times used a photo that was very close to art. If I had taken it, I would be hugely proud.
Even the depiction of death agonies is not in itself wrong. I have hanging above my desk as I write a charcoal drawing that follows me everywhere, done in a concentration camp, of the head of the dying man in the next bunk to the artist’s. I want those eyes on me to keep me honest: I do not ask whether the dying man gave his permission; his expression does not suggest he did.
After last week, I know still less than I did how my motives in this differ from those of the average Mail reader, who also felt Diana’s violated gaze brought her into touch with the tragic ground of life. It’s just that, sharing these motives, I contrive to gratify them with the suffering of someone already long dead
But there is a more subtle justification for the behaviour of the press than simply that the public want it. this is that the public will supply it for themselves if they do not get it from the press. The vices to which we pander, and which we share, were not invented by journalism, though they are amplified by it. They are a constituent part of being human. Curiosity, gossip, and even an interest in the suffering of strangers are signs of humanity: they are lacking only in psychopaths or the autistic. Equally, the urge to tell and hear strong, one-sided stories is not unique to journalists. I have found it among policemen, nurses, and every other group I have ever moved among. Without a press, the people do not lose interest in rumours, unfairness, and intrusive speculation. They just have fewer means to check them with. It’s almost enough to make one proud of being a professional.
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