Howard Jacobson: Brought low by those who think ill of us

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The Independent Online

Question: What do Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks have in common? Answer: Neither appears to have gone to university.

I just thought I'd throw that in. We aren't educational snobs in this column just because we went to you-know-where ourselves. Some of our best friends went to lesser universities than we did and others went to no university at all. We do not look down on them for that. In some matters we even defer to their uneducated judgement.

And if we were tempted to argue that the piffle which the Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson end of the Murdoch empire has lied and cheated in order to go on pumping out is the consequence of poor schooling, we would quickly have to remind ourselves of the number of graduates from Oxford and Cambridge engaged at the piffle end of television. So when it comes to the manufacture of what's worthless, degrading, meretricious and plain stupid, it would seem that a formal education is immaterial. It's just more shaming if you do if after you've been to Oxford or Cambridge.

And who are we to say what's worthless, degrading, meretricious and plain stupid anyway? That's the question that brings us back to universities, because you would hope that there, at least, the necessity of making a value judgement is vigorously and philosophically defended. Of the crimes of which Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson et al are suspected, it surprises us that the degradation of the nation's daily discourse doesn't get more mention. Harder to judge, of course. Harder to get a conviction. But that's not a reason to try.

"Rebekah Brooks – you have left the country stupider than you found it. How do you plead?" But we know how she'd plead. And in evidence she would no doubt adduce the honourary fellowship awarded her by the University of the Arts, London, for her "considerable contribution" to journalism. Readers might want to pause and roll that phrase around their mouth a few times before moving on. Considerable contribution to journalism. Rebekah Brooks.

Pity poor Cameron who has to defend his appalling judgement vis-à-vis Andy Coulson to the nation. While a University of the Arts can get away with a still worse instance of it, vis-à-vis Rebekah Brooks, unchallenged.

In those far-off days when it seemed that Murdoch's BSkyB bid would go ahead unopposed, it struck us that the criterion it had to satisfy – was News Corp a "fit and proper" body to be granted the licence – was a bit light, not to say cowardly and evasive, when it came to intellectual distinction, emotional maturity, educated judgement, and so on. We don't have a word that covers all that, and we would be embarrassed by it if we did, but certainly neither "fit" nor "proper" does the job. As it happens, most of the television we enjoy – In Treatment, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos, Family Guy – comes to us via BSkyB, largely courtesy of HBO, so it would be hypocritical of us to take a lofty tone towards the channel. But without consideration to that nebulous area gestured at by words such as educated, sophisticated, challenging, literate, etc, we can have no adequate debate about the media. "Whatever else, you'll also get more intelligent stuff from me," Murdoch might fairly have argued in his own defence, and, had other matters not intervened, he should have been called on to argue it.

It is not our wish to draw attention from the criminality of hacking by insisting that there are other criminalities no less deserving of opprobrium. In fact we see a direct correlation between the low populism that the Murdoch tabloids have peddled and the gross intrusions into privacy of which they are guilty. When you have a low opinion of people, first you talk down to them, then you treat them like filth.

And by a low opinion we don't only mean assuming they have gross minds, few interests beyond the private lives of celebrities, a vocabulary of 10 words, and a taste for inane puns. We mean assuming they are motivated only by malice, envy, selfishness and greed.

This assumption is by no means limited to News International. Already newspapers which are rivals in the financial sense have been showing they are close allies when it comes to thinking ill of humanity. Scrutinising the motives of some of those turning up on Question Time or Newsnight to bear witness against the hackers and the bribers, all the Mail could come up with was self-interest and spite.

In its understanding, everyone – especially the famous (in true tabloid spirit: those we make, we break) – has an axe to grind. No one cares about the thing itself. Disinterestedness does not exist. This one was exposed for posing in his underwear for a gay dating site, that one for not keeping his pants zipped on Sunset Boulevard – an indiscretion that was no business of ours – so "no wonder", the paper says, they're up in arms. Well, no wonder indeed. But just because you've been burgled doesn't mean you lose the right to pronounce on burglary.

How dare such people set themselves up as moral arbiters, asks the Mail, setting itself up as moral arbiter. Steve Coogan whispers lewd suggestions to his lover – no lewder than anyone with appetite and imagination will whisper – those suggestions are illegally obtained and published, and that, we are to conclude, is Coogan finished as a man entitled to take a moral view of journalists who demean their own profession and invade the nation's privacy.

By this reasoning, no judge who's ever stolen or thought about stealing an illicit kiss should ever conduct a trial. Who's kidding whom here? Socrates was a sodomite but bears reading as a philosopher. And as for keeping one's pants zipped, since when was sexual circumspection the proof of a generous or capacious mind?

So we're back with the cynically self-righteous, envious muckraking, only without the salacious pictures. Rebekah Brooks might have left the building but it's business as usual out there in the junk market.