The British have always been Janus-faced about the institutions of power and persuasion.
On the one hand they hold firmly to the view that all politicians lie, journalists are fundamentally amoral, policemen are generally stupid and very often corrupt and that the law is something for the rich and the privileged and not for the poor and the needy. It's a healthy cynicism that goes back to Shakespeare and has on the whole kept the country free of excesses of either revolution or autocracy.
On the other hand, there is a continuing sense of national pride in institutions such as the monarchy and the armed services and a feeling that you can go too far in denigrating them. If, to the astonishment of commentators, so many people turned out to the lying-in-state of the Queen Mother, it wasn't because they loved her as a celebrity royal but because they valued history and her part in it. Try to make a mockery of the respect shown in Wootton Bassett to the returning bodies of soldiers and you do so at your peril.
It is when the cynicism threatens to overwhelm the residual respect that those in authority start to worry and academics start weighing in with concepts of "trust" and "respect". So it is with the furore over the phone-hacking scandal and the establishment of an inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson to examine the "culture, practices and ethics of the press" in the "context of the latter's relationship with the public, the police and politicians".
Whether they can use the occasion to change a culture within the press, or indeed without, and whether the public takes it all as seriously as the political rhetoric would have it are moot points. For a start, this has been so far a fight between the two professions that the public holds in the lowest esteem – politicians and journalists. Indeed, it only needed the estate agents to have a walk-on part and the theatre of the reviled would have been complete. Of course, the politicians would weave a different story of the people's representatives, long cowed by the overweening power of the popular press in general and Rupert Murdoch in particular, turning on their tormentors and bringing the overmighty to heel. The public is more likely see it as just another example of high jinks and bad behaviour at the top.
None of the reforms or measures now being talked about will do much to change this mood, let alone restore "trust" in public institutions. Introducing statutory regulation on the press, limiting ownership of newspapers to one per proprietor, creating new laws on privacy are all based on the assumption that the media determines the public mood. If only it did. Newspapers, however, are no longer the major source of information or opinion, and haven't been for decades. They're an industry in decline in which it is difficult to find anyone willing to fund their losses, let alone find someone different to finance each title.
Murdoch has certainly been a major driving force in the remorseless media push for celebrity gossip and debate by vilification, in US television as much as UK newspapers. His removal from the scene would take the edge off a lot of the competitive drive towards the lowest common denominator. But he is not a media baron who has taken over the best and made it the worst. He has built up the world's biggest media group by taking over failing papers and starting new commercial TV stations. He has done it by a ruthless understanding of what people are willing to pay for.
You can try to temper the worst by regulation on accuracy, privacy and incitement but you cannot force people to be rational, tolerant and even-handed, not without stamping out freedom of expression in the interests of maturity of argument. Newspapers are there to express diversity of opinion through plurality of title, not balance within each paper, which is what the BBC, a semi-monopoly, is charged with. Opinion, and with it prejudice, will out, if not in newspapers then in the social networking sites and the blogging that are replacing them as the main source of information and views. Go to them and you will find little reassurance that the public appetite for gossip and virulent opinion is on the wane. Just the opposite.
Does the News of the World scandal and the outrage over the Milly Dowler and Sara Payne phone hacking mark a turning point in public mood? From now on will the public attitude to institutions be more respectful and the media more restrained? Probably not. If anything the excesses of the journalists, the complicity of the police and the hysteria of the parliamentary reaction will have increased the general cynicism about public life. Journalists will have to behave themselves for a while. MPs will have regained some self-confidence. But the appetite of the citizenry for gossip and the disparagement of those in public life will go on unaltered. In a world where every mobile telephone is a camera and the results can be distributed to tens of thousands within minutes, there can't and won't be privacy for those of interest to the public, whether it is in the public interest or not.
Newspapers are not just making up the stories of corruption and incompetence in public life. The past decade has seen almost every institution shorn of reputation – the police, parliament, the press, the City, medicine, the Crown and even the army – and for good reason. The run-up to war in Iraq; successive scandals in hospitals and the social services; the exposure of MPs' expenses; revelations about how close the police had come to the media; failures in Iraq and Afghanistan – all have painted a less than glamorous picture of how we are governed. It's not made up. There is little for the citizen to be proud of in the behaviour of its rulers.
The other part of the equation, less discussed, is the steady erosion of public-service ethos. That ethos was based on the pride of individuals that they were doing something above and beyond making money, that they were doing something for the common good rather than personal gain and were bound to standards of propriety which reflected that belief. It still exists at middle and lower levels, but closer to the top you find leaders who regard themselves as managers no different in behaviour or reward than if they were working for a bank. When you get a head of the Metropolitan Police unable to see what is wrong with accepting thousands of pounds of free accommodation at a health farm, you know how far the ethos has been dissipated.
There is no way that Leveson's committee can grapple with this, still less so in the time available. The suspicion is that this is not what it is intended to do. A committee made up of a judge, a group of establishment journalists from the "quality press", an ex-regulator, a former policeman and a token libertarian from a minority ethnic group is not going to begin to understand let alone prescribe rules for the popular press. No, they are there to restore dignity to public institutions by castrating newspapers with old snobbery and new regulation. And that, no doubt, is exactly what they will do.
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