Howard Jacobson: Pitiless conduct by people devoid of imagination

The popular press stimulates a gross curiosity in us of which we should be ashamed

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Let's leave the criminality to the police.

What's been interesting about submissions to the Leveson Inquiry so far is not what we have learnt about the extent of phone hacking and the like but the anguish caused by the simple fact of intrusion – continuous and heartless intrusion – no matter that it might, strictly speaking, have been legal.

Depending on the victims and their capacity to withstand unremitting media attention – and it is not the case that being famous means you're asking for it – the intrusion described has varied from the pestiferous to the pestilential. In some instances, lives have been made miserable, in others a hell on earth. They're the lucky ones, for lives, too, have been taken. It might not be a crime to cause the death of a member of a family by hounding it – so long as no phone has been hacked or premises broken into – but it ought to be. It is a crime, anyway, against the idea that we are communal beings, that we feel for one another, that we share a capacity for suffering. It is a crime against the imagination.

The obduracy of those who stand accused – the pervasiveness of what John Kampfner has called "the spirit of denial" among editors – only compounds the crime. Not only do they deny responsibility for the damage done, they don't even understand the charge. In this, they resemble bankers who don't get why the public is put out by the indecent enormity of their rewards. Their minds snap shut. In both cases, they believe envy or small-minded malice is all that motivates their detractors. "If you don't like high pay, go to Cuba," the headhunter Dr Heather McGregor told the Today programme. Dr? Her doctorate being in what? Moral obtuseness? The Mail called Hugh Grant's statement a "mendacious smear" – the Mail having never, of course, knowingly smeared anyone – from a man "driven by a hatred of the media". Thus is any sort of criticism deflected as proceeding from a sick psyche – mediaphobia, reader, how much sicker can a psyche get? – and any notion of disinterestedness discredited. For we are in a world, now, where only self-interest and revenge are explicable. But those who cannot comprehend unselfish judgement merely show the complexion of their own minds: lacking disinterestedness themselves, they are unable to imagine the existence of it in others.

That a low opinion of humanity is the engine of the popular press is evident on every page. "Giving the public what it wants" is its usual defence, but that, too, is an expression of contempt. It passes the blame, in the most scoundrelly fashion, while refusing to accept that there's anything to be blamed for. Would they serve up sadism if the public suddenly evinced a passion for it? Bestiality? Necrophilia? Postmodernism? As for the idea that those whose pages carry influence should use that influence for the public betterment, that goes against the grain of our resolutely uneducative times. Who are we to say what's "better" blah blah – an expression of disingenuous cultural relativism that's quickly forgotten when the papers are telling their readers which way to vote.

I am willing, for all that, to see it as a two-way street. The popular press stimulates a gross curiosity in us of which we should be ashamed. If that sounds moralistic or elitist, so be it. But I don't have the slightest doubt that a salacious interest in Katie Price's artificial breasts is on a continuum with a salacious interest in Hugh Grant's private life and ultimately the McCanns' grief. We cannot defend one half of it as harmless fun and then offer to be outraged by the other. Low is low. And if there is a cross-infection from triviality to coarseness to cynicism to cruelty and back again, why should we be surprised? If we can accept that borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry, why shouldn't we accept that prurience dulls the edge of fellow feeling, and jeering the edge of our humanity.

Curiosity is not to be confused with imagination. Nor is the imagination to be confused with daydreaming. Those poets and teachers who have been concerned with the imagination – Wordsworth, George Eliot, Lionel Trilling, etc – have not understood it as a preserve of literati. The imagination is the faculty whereby, in the act of reading and thinking and observing, we get to know ourselves and discover a similar capacity for pleasure and pain in others. It can be no coincidence that it's the editors of the least imaginatively refined publications – whose catchword is "give the public the crap the public wants" – who care least about privacy, who are the most pitiless and retributive, who are the first to ransack hearts in no cause but that of sales and titillation, and who are the last to grasp or care what they have done.

Would you not think that even the most cynical would pause before the fact of resemblance – a person-to-person acknowledgement that suchabody's sexual indiscretions, say, were no different to their own? Of all people to stay away from lapses of that sort, you would expect journalists – the most hard living of men and women – to be the first. If we are not bonded in our knowledge of temptation, and then again in our knowledge of succumbing to it, what chance is there of our ever being bonded in anything?

See what happens when our imaginations grow inured to dross.

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