What is the ‘public interest’, in either the media or the civic sense of the phrase? We need to ask this when faced with stories now in the news about how an awful minority amongst media investigators seek to make money.
There is nothing can be said about tales concerning the current News of the World hacking situation, other than it’s sickening. And I know, absolutely genuinely, that all mainstream politicians in the UK are as disgusted as the rest of us by what seems to be coming out of the woodwork. But I do wonder whether we are creating a social climate in which it will be more difficult in the longer term to face up to the tensions between common decency and the private pursuit of money?
When senior politicians (mainly, but not exclusively, of the Right) start to substitute their own version of morality for more quantifiable and testable measures such as the findings of rigorous research, we are veering towards a slippery slope, at the bottom of which unscrupulous people in any public position can say and do what they want. There is no substitute for clearly thought-out, carefully judged and transparent positioning – however uncomfortable – on matters of serious public interest.
The only public morality which is universally acceptable in any contemporary situation is, to my mind, the likelihood that the largest number of citizens will gain benefit and the smallest number face additional difficulties.
And this is still not enough if even just a handful of people would be substantially at risk of harm. In that case, any generalised extra benefit above that already there is cancelled by unacceptable individual damage.
Given such a scenario, recent pronouncements by, especially, the Right about family life (e.g. stick with marriage; and if as a struggling deserted parent you want financial support, you’ll have to pay to get it), as well as about a number of other issues, become very difficult.
There’s a sense that such moralising owes more to those in power keeping the money where they would like it, than to a real engagement with the difficult and potentially really harmful situations which are confronting other, much more vulnerable, people.
To give just one example: having to stay in a relationship because there’s no other way to pay the bills can be physically (and emotionally) dangerous for children and some parents alike.
Of course all political policy needs to be constrained by the contextual economics, but moral dictates can nonetheless never substitute for transparent dialogue.
To re-emphasise: I know that politicians in the UK of all parties are genuinely horrified by the stories now circulating about the News of the World. And I know that, despite denials at the time, it’s likely some of the hacking was done a while ago.
But the political climate is without doubt changing, and with that change we do all have to be extra vigilant.
Because if it becomes culturally and morally acceptable quite openly to ‘save’ wealthier people’s money at the resulting, identified cost of real suffering to others much more vulnerable, it will also become more difficult to see where – in the media or in politics – decency stops and the profit motive starts to have potentially irreversible momentum.
I’ve argued before that there’s already change in the air. I truly hope that this change doesn’t, inadvertently, make for extra difficulties in challenging at every possible level the awfulness of what it now seems has happened in parts of Britain’s media.
In no sense would travel in such a direction be in the public interest, whether that be media interest or politics.