Friday, 23 December 2011

Steve Investigates - The Leveson Inquiry: We Need To Talk About Piers

I haven’t really been that bothered by the comings and goings at the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking. It all seems to be a big, gay circus that’s just for the media to enjoy. They’re the only people with any real interest in the outcome of the thing, mostly because whatever does happen to come out of the inquiry will only really effect them but also because it’s a cheap and easy way to get moany celebs into the papers and dredge up the reasons why they’re testifying (in case anyone forgot). So, we’ve seen Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, Charlotte Church, Steve Coogan and Spanker Mosley give evidence into how the press made their lives miserable, or richer, depending on which way you see it.

It’s natural for the combined institutions of the press to take an interest in proceedings because whatever the outcome, and whether or not the inquiry makes recommendations about how the press should conduct itself, or be conducted by a regulator it will effect all of them, even The Guardian, who we should remember used “investigative journalism” to break a story that no one was interested in this time last year.

In the big sphere of journalism, integrity of expression, freedom of speech and the right to investigate any given “newsworthy” thing, there isn’t really that much difference in the tabloid stories. What, if anything, James Murdoch or Rebekah Brooks or whoever else knew about how stories were sourced or what actually went on it all comes under the journalism umbrella. Be that rooting through bins to find out that; a football player’s shagging some model, or a film star is doing coke off a tramps trousers in a back alley in Soho, or a story about the government wasting money on silly things like aircraft carriers or the NHS, or a corporation using child labour to make football shirts in somewhere god awfully dirt poor part of India or the Philippines.
The only real difference seems to be that if you investigate the thing you’re investigating with a notepad and by talking to insiders, whistleblowers or witnesses and formulate a story then that’s ok, no matter what the story might be, because it can be claimed that, whatever the story, it was properly investigated, fact checked and clarified by supporting evidence.

But hacking into the voicemails of people isn’t because phone hacking is illegal. So the difference really is the method and source of a story rather than the story and, apart from ascertaining that celebrities were hacked, the stream of schlebs at the inquiry were mostly just whiney window dressing to make sure there was a constant focus on the inquiries proceedings.

This is almost certainly the first inquiry which we’ve actually seen the nuts and bolts of the system at work. Most inquiries get on with things without the glare of a TV camera focusing on each day’s events. The news channels don’t cover most inquiries at the forensic level to which the Leveson inquiry is being covered. We don’t usually get to see what witnesses have to say, we just get the findings, conclusions and recommendations when it’s all done and the inquiry is ready to be published. Similarly there isn’t usually the interest in watching House of Commons committee hearings, but the Culture, Media and Sport committee hearings into phone hacking were broadcast live on all of the TV news channels.

The first thing to note about the inquiry, and this sort of harks back to what I said at the top of the page, is that I haven’t been especially bothered by the comings and goings at the inquiry. In part because it is a media shitstorm and aside from the media corporations taking an overly keen interest in what’s going on, there isn’t really anything of any importance to an ordinary chap like me.

There are far more important things going on in the world, the Euro has been on it’s last sheet of toilet roll for most of the last six months, the economy is struggling not to gurgle off down the pisser and leave everyone living in a cardboard box under a motorway off-ramp, the world’s longest standing and most terrible dictators seem to all be playing a very bizarre and very final game of Last Man (Cunt) Standing and are dropping like flies, millions of underpaid public sector workers are being forced to accept a worse pension settlement by a lying cheating government.

But while that’s all going on just down the corridor and to the right, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs are having fun with tax collections and showing that if you’re not rich you aren’t allowed to underpay your tax by even a tiny bit. Or that if you’re a pensioner who was maybe a bit short on your tax at some point you’ll find yourself being hounded for your winter fuel allowance. Perhaps if you’re a small, hungry child whose parents earn minimum wage and have been told that even though petrol, gas and electric prices are going up by about 20% that that shouldn’t automatically mean that they’ll get a pay rise to see them through. VAT, the cost of living and even silly things like bread and milk are going up but your parents still need to pay more tax for every pound they earn than Simon Cowell or Lord Sugar or Lewis Hamilton. If you’re unfortunate enough to be homeless you might find that the HMRC are trying to work out a way to charge you VAT on your little dog on a bit of string or your chic “distressed” look cardboard box.

However, if you’re a multinational corporation that earns billions of pounds a year and can afford an army of crafty accountants, tax lawyers and money squirrellers then you can pretty much decide how little tax you pay and just treat Mr HMRC head honcho to a nice, and expensive dinner to smooth it all away. All of which is much more important than whether or not a few crooked journos hacked the phone of Max “my dad picked the wrong side in the war” Mosley or Paul “I married the wrong kind of mentalist” McCartney.

Jimmy "Howlin' Mad" Murdoch
And so I haven’t really been paying attention to the Leveson Inquiry, it clashes with Countdown you see. But because Countdown is on its Christmas sabbatical I did happen to catch some of it on Tuesday, and joy of all joys, it was Piers Morgan’s turn to step into the bright lights of the inquiry. But watch it (some of it) I did, and maybe because I’m not getting enough of the lovely Rachel and her sexy maths, I found myself thinking I’m not sure I believe what Piers is saying. Much in the same way that I find myself not believing James Murdoch when he says he didn’t read any emails between 2002 and last week.

Now because Piers Morgan says he has no knowledge of hacking and doesn’t believe that hacking took place at either the News Of The World or the Daily Mirror when he was big chief editor man of those newspapers I’m duty bound (by law) to take that at face value and point out that Piers denies any knowledge of phone hacking or of any story that his papers ran that may have come from a phone being hacked. But that doesn’t mean I believe him.

Hugh Grant’s favourite pub landlord, Paul McMullan, who spent much of August being shouted at by Steve Coogan on a host of BBC news programmes has said that phone hacking was endemic, and not just at the defunct News Of The World, but in the whole of the print media industry.

Paul "smell my photo you mother" McMullan
Paul McMullan may look like a badly laundered weasel, he may take an unnecessary and disproportionate amount of glee out of revealing sexy secrets about celebrities. He may also sit on a very lonely cloud of moral ambiguity with his opinion that listening to illegally recorded private phone conversations is all fine and above board because celebs are just greedy for fame and they get what they deserve when they do things that the press think we should all know about (knobbing about or snorting Colombian bath salts usually). And whilst he may also be the least trustworthy looking Human being who ever lived, he is still the only journo who has said that phone hacking actually happened.

It may make silly Paul a massive fool for doing that, because I’m sure that the long arm of the law, which Piers Morgan was careful not to get too near to, will be wanting some words with him about his role in the scandal. But, if we put his general unlikeable nature to one side, he at least still ‘fessed up.

Morgan was never going to be that stupid, and he was never going to do a McMullan, he’s got a reputation to maintain after all. The problem I found with Piers’ appearance at the inquiry was that the more he said he didn’t know about phone hacking the less I believed him. He’s like a child who opens all his presents two days before he’s supposed to in a giddy, pre-Christmas scrimmage of discarded wrapping detritus only to deny it all when he’s confronted by a mound of empty toy boxes and bits of sellotape stuck to his jumper (a jumper that only five minutes ago had been wrapped up under a tree). Morgan would likely not only deny opening the presents but go onto to claim he didn’t have any knowledge of any presents.

Piers "chip pan" Morgan
Three things struck me about Piers’ appearance; the first is that legal proceedings are really quite boring. I’ve never been in a court and so my only frame of reference for what goes on in one I get from watching films or TV shows. The whole time I was wondering when does Jack Nicholson turn up and shout “THE TRUTH? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” (the truth being he just acted Tom Cruise out of his socks) or even Joe Pesci learning about the law while he’s going on and still managing to get his young cousin off a murder wrap by being, well, Joe Pesci, in the very excellent and massively underrated My Cousin Vinny. But what I found out was that legal hearings are a tedious drudgefest that take hours and plod along at a snails pace while people look up quotes in books and testimonies. There are no revelatory moments or surprises or last minute, mystery witnesses or any of that shit. It’s just a man asking another man boring questions.

The 2nd thing I learnt is that, one of those men, Piers Morgan, really is a very unlikeable man, not in the same way that Paul McMullan is. McMullan’s unlikability all comes from whiffing to high heaven of years of being a weasel who lives too close to a sewage outlet pipe. Morgan’s too slick for that, he’s clearly been out of the dirt and grime and day-to-day trawling through bins that McMullan crawled about in for long enough to stay mostly fresh and relatively clean (and it is all relative).

Piers’ unlikeability comes from the very smug, self-satisfied and oily way he does everything. He comes across as a used car salesmen or an estate agent, much like Nick Clegg does. They both try to give off a “trust me, I’m Piers (or Nick)” vibe but the more they try to give off that vibe the less I find myself trusting the things they say. I think it comes from them going to good, but not the very best schools. They learn how to do the smarm and to think that they’re better than anyone they ever speak to most of the time, but they didn’t get to go to Eton like David Cameron or Boris Johnson, who for better or worse (mostly worse), do the used car salesmen thing better and in a more casual way, because they know they went to the very best school and not just a good school, so they know they’re better than everyone else in the room, except when they’re together obviously, it’s why they hate each other. But they both know they’re better than Nick Clegg (and Piers Morgan) because Nick and Piers didn’t go to Eton.

And that's the problem with Piers, he thinks he’s the best person in the room most of the time, but because he knows that on certain occasions, and those occasions probably happen more often to him than most people who come from a similar background given the world of high-level politics he mingles in (buzzes around), he knows that there will be times that he won’t be the best person in the room, because he didn’t quite go to the right school and so he’s always running to not catch up with the boys who did, boys like “Call Me Dave” Cameron and Mayor Boris. He’ll never really catch up though, it’s not that sort of game and running off to America (where they don’t have the unfathomable and ridiculous class system that we do) won’t change that either, because the game he’s playing in is rigged.

The last point is a more general point about the inquiry itself. It’s the tabloid factor. Like I said in the opening paragraphs, there isn’t a lot of difference between investigating hacking like The Guardian did or investigating whether George Michael’s been trawling Clapham Common looking for “trade” again in real terms. It’s all just journalism, the only thing that separates the business that the Leveson inquiry is looking into and the alleged dumping of toxic waste in Africa by Trafigura, or the expenses scandal stories for example, are the methods used in obtaining the story and the so-called “public interest”.

Phone hacking is illegal and so there was an outcry that led to the inquiry, especially after it emerged that phone hacking wasn’t just something used to listen to celebrity secrets but that Milly Dowler and other victims of crimes may have been targeted in some way by phone hackers looking for stories too.

But the expenses scandal was revealed using stolen documents and because it appeared in The Telegraph and not the “sewer” press it’s classed as relevant. Who decides what’s relevant or worthwhile though? Is it government? Or opinionistas? Or the newspaper buying public? Leveson? Max Mosley? Steve Coogan?

The News of the World sold three times as many copies every weekend than the Sunday Telegraph before it closed. Tabloids hog all of the top sales slots every week, so by that token the British people are largely more in favour, or prefer reading, the sort of celebrity tittle-tattle and knee-jerk opinion of The Sun, The Mirror and (heaven help us) The Daily Star more than reading about the hacking scandal in The Guardian or The Independent, who have also been following the phone hacking story very closely.

Proper Journalism
Plus if you go into any newsagent on any given day you’ll find twenty or thirty magazines dedicated to celebrity gossip (shite) with “stories” about the sex-life of an easily forgettable X-Factor loser or a Coronation Street stars’ weight gain nightmare and buried somewhere on the rack there may be a lonely copy of Private Eye or some other topical news or scientific magazine but you’ll probably struggle to find the poor thing.

What all that says is that for all of the crying and bleating done by the likes of Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan about the overly intrusive ways of the “popular” press, is that the British people like to read about the tedious lives of celebrities and want to know about their dirty little secrets. So while the Leveson inquiry may be focussing on the media and the people who spoon-feed us this toss the inquiry is really just showing the public the way those media types actually make the tabloid news sausage that they love so much.

The inquiry may or may not be focussed on Murdoch and the other media barons who own our newspapers and it may or may not decide that there does need to be a change of culture in an industry that has probably proved that at least parts of it can’t regulate itself and still stick to levels of decency, morality and professional standards, and that it may or may not decide that those changes should be decided for the industry rather than by it, but he’s really just looking at us all and if he doesn’t spend large parts of his day shaking his head at us all and giving us all a big old glare of disparaging, tut-tutting, shame-inducing stink eye for propping up the gang of swines and buying their stinking newspapers then he’s not doing his job right.

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