Journalism has attracted an impressive array of rascals and scallywags down the years, but nothing prepared public opinion for the utter immorality revealed in News of the World phone hacking scandal. Usually when the media use the word “shocked”, the rest of us would have said “mildly interested/amused”.
This time though, it’s appropriate. There was genuine shock and anger on learning that the News of the World’s employees had deleted messages from the phone of a murdered child, giving her parents false hope that she was still alive and interfering with the police investigation.
A common reaction is that the press, politicians and even the police have betrayed people’s trust.
At first sight this seems bizarre. Opinion surveys regularly show less faith in reporters than just about any other profession.
In the IPSOS MORI Veracity Index linked to above, only 19% of those surveyed in the UK on 10-16 June this year trusted journalists to tell the truth. That’s a dismal score but it’s still much better than the 14% for politicians, the least-trusted group in the poll.
So why should the British public feel betrayed by people they don’t trust in the first place?
I think that part of the answer is that readers buy the supermarket tabloids and redtops mainly to be entertained, so gossip about celebrities is fine. After all, these are people who sell their private lives to the newspapers and magazines anyway, and accept money from advertisers to persuade the gullible to dress like them, eat and drink like them and even smell like them. And if they don’t like what’s said, they have the means to defend themselves.
The result is that most readers probably didn’t care about phone hacking when only the rich and famous were victims.
The feeling of betrayal comes from the fact that the tabloids always present themselves as defending morality, upholding what’s best in national traditions, and supporting their readers. Following the backlash when this was shown not to be the case, many commentators have suggested that things will never be the same again.
We’ve heard this discourse about the power of popular anger before. Remember how the financial crisis was going to change the way banks behaved?
The OECD website has a special section on restoring public trust. Society can’t function without trust, but my personal opinion is that while we do need to restore trust, often the problem is that we placed too much trust in people and institutions who aren’t trustworthy.