Hugh Grant strikes me as a man frustrated. Giving interviews at a fringe event at the Tory party conference this week, he once again continued his efforts to restore the phone hacking scandal to the forefront of the public's and politicians' minds. Sadly for him - and us - it largely didn't work.
Revelations that he had tried to prevent George Osbourne from hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson did make headlines in couple of the national papers; Osbourne's failure to listen to such advice once again raising questions about the Conservative's knowledge about Coulson's alleged involvement in phone-hacking (future tip to Grant: if you want to get Osbourne to stop anything, the word to use is 'Louise').
However, despite some attention from the left-leaning broadsheets, phone hacking seems largely forgotten about - by the public and politicians alike. Grant knows this; his attempts to attract attention to the issue using his personal profile being a noble attempt to stem the growing tide of disinterest in the story. As attention moves from the private media's involvement with the government to talk of cat-exploiting immigrants, the 'lazy' unemployed, and the unoptimistic poor - and as James Murdoch's hazy recollections grow dimmer by the day - there is a real risk that this story will be buried under newer, illusory concerns. Hugh Grant, for all of his lovable charm, seems unable to reverse this trend on his own.
How has this happened? There seemed to be such outrage about what had been uncovered; real, genuine anger about the revelations of wrong-doing at The News of the World. It seemed as though this could have been a watershed moment for the British media; an opportunity to abandon and reform the reliance on celebrity gossip and sensationalist tittle-tattle for something more worthwhile and wholesome.
When most people remember the hacking scandal they will undoubtedly think of the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone - which some would argue was quite rightly the focal point of our opprobrium. However, while this was one of the most shocking revelations, it was really just an indicator of the extent of the problems inherent in much of Fleet Street. Was some of the outrage not to do with the immorality of prying into people's private lives? Was there not a realisation that tabloid culture had made us prurient, slavering hounds, desperate for the next bit of juicy gossip or a contemptuous chuckle? Were we not shocked by the revelations of the cosiness between Number 10 and the Murdoch Empire?
It seems not; the nation's appetite for tabloid sensationalism appears not to have diminished since the collapse of News of the World. Daily tabloid sales have remained fairly constant, and many Sundays have increased their readership, picking up the readers left stranded by the sinking of their previously bought publication. Surely everyone knows that these newspapers used similar tactics to the News of the World? Surely everyone knows that the immorality exposed was not isolated to only one paper?
People may know, but they don't truly care. As long as they are getting their entertainment, they are willing to let it slide. It reminds me of something Slavoj Zizek said about the Wikileaks revelations. All that was disturbed by the leaks was the capacity to 'keep up appearances' - the ability to pretend that the injustice and horrors of war were not really happening. Likewise with the phone hacking; we all knew there were problems with our tabloid press, and we all knew that such papers were likely the antithesis of the moral guardians they often painted themselves to be. The Milly Dowler case made it impossible to ignore these truths in the isolated case of The News of the World, but we remain in a state of wilfully ignorant bliss about the rest of them.
In a way, the sensationalism of the Dowler story was its own Achilles Heel. Tabloid narratives dictate that young victims of predatory murderers are sacred. The violation of Milly and her family's privacy was thus packaged as an emotive and shocking story, a tabloid-esque call for outrage and unction. Ironically, the News of the World exposé became very much like... well... a News of the World exposé.
With the passing of the immediacy of this visceral pathos came the passing of the story. Without outrage and demagogic reporting there came a lack of interest. Again there is a grim irony here; the shallow reporting tabloids trade in has lead to a situation in which we can no longer even spot real, important stories. Our taste-buds for debating important political and social issues have been dulled by a junk-food diet of celebrity scandal and tits; the chip wrappers of tomorrow are the decaying portion of fries we feed on today.
Neil Postman, in his prescient 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, wrote that rather than the Orwell's vision of a totalitarian dystopia in which rights were forcibly removed from people, it is rather Aldous Huxley's Brave New World that sets the template for where society is going; with people wilfully medicating themselves into apathy, voluntarily giving up their rights.
Postman argued that we are slowly being stupefied and pacified by televisual entertainment; its format being unable to communicate the depth of content needed for rational and autonomous engagement with the important issues of the day.
In a way, there is an element of that in play here. Our desire for disposable, shallow entertainment has rendered us unable to engage truly in matters affecting our society; matters concerning the deepest structures of power and our right to a free democracy. Furthermore, we are relatively happy to ignore any threats to our rights, such is the allure of our sweet entertainment that we need not examine the bigger picture, so long as we are content.
It is a worrying development, and the phone-hacking scandal should have been the wake-up call we needed to start challenging the problems in the British media, governance, and police force. However, it is fast becoming a testament to the public's disconnection from the political process, and an increasing sense of apathy of disenfranchisement. We have become a shallow, vacuous nation, and if we need a film star to highlight this for us, then so be it.
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