This afternoon’s announcement that Prince Harry was indeed the victim of a campaign of “extensive” phone hacking by Mirror Group Newspapers almost two decades ago may have captured the teatime headlines, but it’s a victory whose significance has surely been overtaken by events.
For Harry his lengthy civil court battle, which is still far from over, is primarily symbolic – his £140,600 damages award will make but a small contribution to his general wealth, and even any subsequent payouts for the 155 instances he’s continuing to pursue will amount to far less than any of the highly lucrative media contracts he’s secured since exiting the UK.
Back in the early 2000s when this case first started there was still a raw outrage that something like phone hacking and the Millie Dowler scandal could ever have happened, and the post-Murdoch era backlash meant there was a real determination to bring the UK press under some kind of formal control.
At the time there may have been some justification in this, though that really depends on whether you see celebrities primarily as victims of the media, or manipulators of it. Certainly in the case of Prince Harry’s mother there was an incredibly ambiguous and dangerous narrative going on. Like so many public figures, Diana believed that it was perfectly possible to feed positive news and media opportunities to the press, whilst expecting them to avoid or ignore the salacious and negative. When that didn’t go to plan, it was all too easy to blame the press for having its own obsession with chasing negative news, even to the extent of claiming that this agenda was a driver of public demand, rather than the result of it.
Again, whether the press is the mirror of public opinion and taste, or the creator of it, or even something of both is a debate that also divides public opinion sharply.
Back in the days of the Murdoch and Maxwell empires a lot of things happened in journalism that would be met with gasps today, but they were little more than modern iterations of ruthless investigative practices that can be traced right back through history, and across a wide range of social activities. All were the consequences of a lack of a moral framework – within organisations, and amongst individuals.
In some respects it was a little spurious to pour scorn on the media, when other aspects and areas of free market capitalism were ridden with corruption and dark practices, and were hardly setting standards by which journalists and editors could measure themselves. Yes, there was the Press Complaints Commission, but this was well known to be a ‘toothless tiger’ which had no legal powers, and quite rightly came under the heaviest scrutiny for its lack of action in the News of the World phone hacking affair. In July 2011 the then Prime Minister David Cameron called for it to be replaced completely with a new system that had legal powers, and the mechanism for getting to this was the Leveson Enquiry. Lord Hunt was appointed Chairman of the Commission in October 2011 and he set about talking to the key players to establish a framework of self-regulation. Within weeks he was forced to admit: “At the moment, it is like the Wild West out there. We need to appoint a sheriff.”
Ironically, just as Lord Hunt and his team looked like the state might be going to finally get a grip of the established media, everything effectively collapsed with the explosion of the internet.
The World Wide Web and the internet had only really established itself beyond university and defence departments in 1995, and in the early days its transformative abilities were pretty much the preserve of media organisations, who grasped immediately the potential of sending news digitally to newsrooms rather than typed copy through to post or by fax, and transmitting pictures across the net rather than via antiquated wire machines.
Those of us working in national media at the time knew what was coming. Within a decade the home computer and numerous other communication devices had arrived and news and information was no longer being collected, processed and disseminated by the giant media corporations and their trained employees – people were finding their own direct routes to information, and information of all kinds was finding them.
Looking back on it all, it seems a little trivial now that British society had become so preoccupied with the covert activities of the press. The Prince Harry saga is a certainly case in point; whilst he may feel that his lengthy court battle has vindicated his view that he had been the subject of unwarranted and immoral media intrusion, the media circus has moved on to the extent that some are even lamenting the days when – however corrupt or dubious the craft may have been – at least we knew who was saying what, and from what perspective they came.
The public consumption shift from the established media to the internet has exposed society to an utterly unregulated flow of information, and has equally given every kind of protagonist completely free access to the public debate. What Levenson undoubtedly knew was that attempting to regulate the press was a dead duck, because in many respects the press no longer mattered. In the public narrative, a dubious and questionable morality had been replaced with a complete absence of morality.
When most of the great British newspapers were founded, their masters were predominantly men of faith, who established their titles and publishing empires on the back of often bold and flamboyant ethical and moral manifestos, even if their primary objective was the accumulation of personal wealth. For its part the Catholic Church has been engaging with the media and society narrative since the early 1960s, when it first recognised that seismic changes were occurring in society and human morals. Few beyond the Catholic Church itself paid much attention to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and even the attendees themselves demonstrated a remarkable reluctance to make pronouncements of the nature of the media. There was an important but all too brief statement (Decree) on social Communications in December 1963 called Inter Mirifica, but it would take a further eight years for the Church to formulate the Pastoral Instruction Communio et Progressio (On the Means of Social Communication). Whilst both of these documents present sound arguments for establishing a Christian, or at least moral, base for journalism, they predate the internet and its consequences so it’s little surprise that they are immersed in the kind of principles that many media organisations of the period were still desperately clinging to.
“influencing public opinion is justified only when it serves the truth and its objectives and methods accord with the dignity of man and when it promotes causes that are in the public interest,” says Communio et Progressio.
Of course ‘truth’, ‘dignified methods’ and ‘public interest’ were, and remain, entirely open to individual interpretation, and abuse.
Coming back to Prince Harry, there’s no doubt that his court victory will embolden many other public figures and celebrities to try their luck at winning judgements over articles written about them in the 1990s and 2000s that contained private information obtained from questionable sources. Such judgements will attract little coverage in the media, not for reasons of suppression, but because a society immersed in unregulated gossip and fantasies of its own making cares relatively little about the fate of celebrities, or the importance of moral standards in communication.
Rather than fixating on regulating the media, the more urgent need in the modern age is for a forensic examination of wider public morality, and the role it ought to play in the regulation of mass communications, especially the internet. We continue play the self-regulation and exemption-from-censorship card at our very great peril, and with damning social consequences. It’s a void where the Church needs to find a voice, and society needs our intervention.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian