It is rare to find an issue that unites all of the press — left, right and centre. Still harder when that issue is considered controversial, involving complex moral and legal issues. How then to explain the unanimity of the press? The matter under discussion is the use of so-called “super-injunctions” to prevent the publication of sex scandal stories involving celebrities.
The daily diet of the British tabloids is stodgy with tales of which premiership footballer slept with which model and which C-list soap star is having it off with which “Big Brother” housemate. Hence the outrage that they can be “gagged” by the courts.
But the problem with premiership footballers, famous actors and performers is that they are rich and can call on great resources when they are desperate to defend their reputations or hold their relationships and families together under the strain of infidelity. Although they are victims of tabloid culture, they are also one of the very few social groups powerful enough to prevent the papers from printing exactly what they want regardless of the consequences.
According to the Telegraph, at least 80 celebrities have obtained what that paper calls “gagging orders” in British courts over the last six years.
Does any of this matter to socialists? The way in which this debate is being framed encourages us to think of it as a conflict between free speech and freedom of the press on the one hand and the power of the rich and famous on the other. All other things being equal, a libertarian socialist would be for the right of the press to print stories irrespective of whether we agree with them or are comfortable with the content.
The Mirror emphasised this side of the debate with a survey showing that “eight out of 10 people believe the use of ‘super-injunctions’ against the press shows there is one law for the rich, another for the rest of us.” It turns out that the survey was paid for by the Mirror! Nonetheless, they are sure that the result will “fuel the furore over the gagging orders which wealthy celebrities use to hide their indiscretions”.
I don’t have the breadth and diversity of friends that would keep me in touch with all of the feelings of readers of the Sun, Mirror and Telegraph, but I get around a bit most weeks and I haven’t detected any furore at all about super-injunctions.
On a personal level I would like to see many, many more court orders preventing the publication of accounts of the sexual indiscretions of celebrities. Their privacy would be protected and, no matter how rich, I think they have rights too. But that would not be the only gain. It might also mean that some of these celebrities will get less casual sex than they do now!
If there was little chance of selling salacious (though usually tired and predictable) details to the press that would be a good thing. These stories are “bread and circuses” of the worst kind, demeaning their readers almost as much as their victims. They, and celebrity gossip in general, have been a huge factor in the evolution of a mass newspaper market which barely deals in news and politics at all.
There is nothing natural or inevitable about this evolution. I was brought up in a council house by working-class parents neither of whom had an education beyond 16. Newspapers were, nevertheless, a sacred part of every day and silence descended on our front room when the news came on the TV or radio. It may not have been a typical household on our estate, but it wasn’t particularly rare either. Interest in the world is as likely and can be as enthusiastic in working-class homes as in those of the wealthy and more privileged or formally educated.
In recent decades newspapers produced for the mass market have moved decisively downmarket. The replacement of news by celebrity scandal is a significant factor in disarming and sedating our class. And it is this exclusion of our class from politics — much more than freedom of the press — that is at stake in this debate.
And the broadsheet press, which itself occasionally dips a voyeuristic toe into celeb culture, is entirely comfortable with a class division of labour within which they provide serious news to the people who need it while the rest make do with comics.
The serious case that they make against injunctions — that they can be used by big corporations to block stories about corrupt practices — could be taken care of by a far better, clearer law.
You can see how much the British press really values free speech by observing their reaction to the breaching of court orders on Twitter, social networks and blogs.
Anarchy! they cry. Let us print this stuff or it will get out but in the most unreliable and damaging way.
What worries them is that rumours and gossip are circulated without the chance for anyone to profit by it. What is the point of paying reporters to collect dirt only to find it published by freelance gossips on platforms they do not control and from which they cannot profit?
I would like to think that the future of celebrity gossip is to be published that way so that it becomes indecipherable noise which no-one listens to properly.
As ever the media barons are less interested in genuine press freedom than in maintaining their power to shape what is considered news and what is judged to be in the “public interest”. The fact that there is a challenge to this agenda, even if it comes from some wealthy footballers and actors, is on the whole a good thing.