Howard Jacobson: Pitiless conduct by people devoid of imagination

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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices