A tabloid coup d'etat

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The Independent Online
IS FREEDOM of expression destroying democracy? I fear it may be, through certain forms which freedom of expression has been assuming in the technological and other conditions of the late 20th century.

Within Britain's mixed constitution, combining a hereditary and an elective principle, the destructive potential of the media in the late 20th century has been concentrated primarily on the hereditary aspect, by treating the Royal Family as a high-life soap opera, with plenty of sex interest. The destructive attentions of the media are a serious, if at present secondary, threat to the British constitution.

It is not self-evident that democracy in Britain would survive the removal of the constitutional monarchy, which is much older than the institutionalisation of the democratic principle. The armed forces are the forces of the Crown, and soldiers are apt to take such apparent archaisms more literally than politicians and other civilians. If the transition from constitutional monarchy to unqualified democracy should be attempted - at some time during the coming century - it could be a bumpier passage than might now be considered likely, and the outcome might not be a democratic one.

It seems to be generally assumed that the constitutional monarchy is in no great danger. I think this is to underestimate the power of the forces of dissolution in society, which are being speeded up by modern communications. It is true that media coverage unfavourable to the Royal Family is nothing new. In the late 18th century, The Letters of Junius with their threats of sexual scandal, were felt by George III to be endangering his throne. But that threat was seen off: Philip Francis - aka 'Junius' - was bought off with a job in India. Later crises involving the monarchy and the media - including the Mrs Simpson crisis in 1936 - were also successfully handled, through exercises in damage-limitation.

Such exercises, however, are quite inadequate to cope with the late-20th-century threat to the monarchy posed by the tabloids. The present disorder is structural, deep-seated and probably irreparable. The personal lives of members of the Royal Family are standing commercial assets for the tabloids, which are being, and will continue to be, competitively exploited without mercy and without any limit in sight.

Modern technology - and in particular the use of long-range photography - make possible the invasion of what used to be called 'the private lives' of members of the Royal Family (and of other high-placed and vulnerable people) to an unprecedented extent. Even more ruthlessly invasive is the power represented by the financial resources, combined with the financial incentives, of the tabloids - and of book- publishing enterprises operating at tabloid level in relation to vulnerable members of the Royal Family.

A tentative move by the Government towards reducing these invasions of privacy revealed only that the tabloids are now more powerful than Parliament, precisely because of their successful invasions of privacy, and the capacity for blackmail which these invasions confer on them.

When Mr Major's government was considering legislation restricting invasions of privacy, the minister charged with the project publicly warned the tabloids that they were drinking in the 'Last Chance Saloon'. Tabloids promptly published revelations about David Mellor's sex life, which brought an end to his ministerial career. Skeletons were heard to rattle throughout the cupboards of Westminster. The project for curbing invasions of privacy faded from view. Late-20th- century versions of freedom of expression had proved stronger than democracy.

From now on, and well into the next century, it will be open season on vulnerable members of the Royal Family. Whether the monarchy can survive indefinite punishment of this kind is doubtful. Remember that among the forces which prepared the way for the destruction of the French monarchy in the late 18th century was a series of revelations, or allegations, published about the sex lives of the royal family, and of the queen in particular.

In the US, the inroads of the media into existing political institutions take somewhat different, but hardly less dangerous, forms. There is no American institution closely comparable to the Royal Family, and none quite as vulnerable to the attentions of the media (nor does America possess anything closely comparable to the power and irreverent audacity of the British tabloids).

The respect of the American public for the presidency is probably greater than anything that now surrounds the British monarchy as an institution, as distinct from the respect and affection which surround the present monarch. Yet the general tendency of the late-20th-century media is to erode respect in general, and this is beginning to affect American institutions, including the presidency.

UP TO THE 1989 presidential elections, the private lives even of presidential candidates were considered out of bounds by the media generally. R W Apple Jr, of the New York Times, tells a relevant story about the presidential campaign of John F Kennedy in 1960. When Kennedy came to New York during that campaign, there was strong interest in which New York politicians Kennedy would be seeing. Apple was sent to stake out the lobby of his hotel to see which politicians came a-calling. He reported back to his editor: no New York politicians. He added, as some compensation, that he had seen Marilyn Monroe, who had taken the lift to the floor of the Senator's suite, and had remained there for a couple of hours. 'There's no story in that,' said the editor of the New York Times.

The convention that had protected the sex lives of American politicians began to fade in the last quarter of the 20th century. It broke down altogether during the 1988 campaign, when reports of the sexual activities of Gary Hart destroyed his candidature. In 1992, Clinton's candidature successfully weathered various sexual scandals, but as President he has suffered more from such scandals than any predecessor.

The general erosion of respect, in the late 20th century, may well have significant and negative implications for American democracy well into the next millennium, and therefore for the future of democracy anywhere on the planet.

More disturbing for the present is a less personal phenomenon: the impact of late- 20th-century communications on presidential decision-making. Characteristically, horrors from those parts of the globe that happen to be accessible to television cameras appear on the box and generate indignation, compassion etc. These images and emotions have a bearing on the president's popularity ratings, frequently published in the media. The president then responds not in terms of the professional advice available to him in relation to the local situation, but in terms of the impact of the images on the popularity ratings. The reactions of the US are improvised with a rapidity proportionate to the short attention span of the viewing public.

The result, inevitably, is a series of foreign-policy messes, leaving behind them a vague dissatisfaction - evident, ironically, in President Clinton's present low ratings.

I suspect that the worst effect of the communications revolution is that it has started to boggle the minds of members of establishments on both sides of the Atlantic. A case in point, on this side, is the Millennium Commission appointed by Mr Major's government and currently deemed to be deliberating about the millennium. It seems that its remit is to approve projects which are 'of the millennium'. No one on the commission appears to have a clue as to what this might mean, but the most articulate among them are approaching their task with a determined and assured triviality. One, Simon Jenkins, has said: 'We don't want old projects, we want fizz, excitement, panache.' That approach sounds like a case of over-exposure to the late- 20th-century culture which consists of a flow of hyper- stimulating images operating on short attention spans.

(Photograph omitted)