Dominic Lawson: We got the phone hacking we wanted

Readers were more interested in eavesdropping on Prince Charles's pillow talk than bothered about the snooping

Tuesday 12 July 2011 00:00 BST

There are few pleasures so pure as pointing the finger of blame; but when those pointing are simultaneously seeking to exculpate themselves, then it is a psychological necessity.

Thus it is with the voicemail hacking scandal, which last week led to the summary closure of the News of the World, Britain's most-read Sunday newspaper. Rupert Murdoch is blamed, naturally, as the proprietor who profited from the paper's illegal eavesdropping. The police are blamed for their cursory investigation into the snooping, with the added twist that some officers seem to have received cash for assisting the tabloid in its preying on such targets as the Royal Family. The politicians are blamed for being so cosy with the Murdoch empire that they tolerated evident abuses of the freedom of the press. The Press Complaints Commission is blamed for being generally useless.

Is there anybody I've left out? Only the Great British Public, in their millions. They, if opinion polls are to be believed, are outraged by the News of the World's behaviour. Shocked. Scandalised. Appalled. Yet on Sunday no fewer than 4.5 million of them (that is to say, us) went out and bought a copy of the paper. Yes, that great increase over its normal sale of 2.6 million was partly down to the souvenir value; but the truth is that the paper's success was always based on the daring of its snooping and the more outrageously it snooped, the more it sold. This point applied to all the red-top tabloids, not just the News of the World – and it was fun all round (except for those on the receiving end).

Thus when the Sunday People bugged the flat in which the Tory Cabinet Minister David Mellor was conducting an affair with Antonia de Sancha, nobody would have listened if Mellor had complained about being bugged, because we were all too busy enjoying his humiliation. The Royal Family, even more than libidinous politicians, were the principal targets of the red-top phone-tappers. Thus in 1992 the public were regaled with the so-called Squidgygate tapes, Diana Princess of Wales's recorded conversations with her friend James Gilbey – apparently the result of the tapping of Diana's landline. Within weeks the same public feasted avidly on the bugged night-time telephone conversation between the Prince of Wales and his mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles; millions rang a telephone line set up by the Sun, to hear the tape played on a continual loop.

Yesterday the BBC's Robert Peston made a splash with the revelation that a Royal Protection Officer had in the past been paid by the News of the World for giving phone details of members of the Royal Family. Cue more expressions of shock and surprise. Yet even if this had been known at the time, would the public have been filled with outrage on behalf of the heir to the throne and his long-time mistress? I don't think so for a moment. There didn't even seem to be much anger on Prince William's behalf when it was revealed five years ago that the News of the World had hacked into his voicemails.

Newspapers, after all, are very sensitive to the moods and prejudices of their readers. It was because such papers as the News of the World knew that their readers were much more interested in eavesdropping on Prince Charles's pillow talk than bothered about how the snooping was carried out, that they felt able to get away with publishing such stories in the first place.

On one analysis, it is easy to see why all this was judged fair game, while the hacking of Milly Dowler's voicemail was considered so heinous that the News of the World was immediately deserted by its advertisers and wound- up by its owners. The paper was widely seen as read by the working man and woman, people who would never empathise with the sufferings of hacked princesses or pop stars (how can the rich really suffer, with all that money?); but when the phone of an "ordinary" girl – one of their own– is hacked into, at a time when she was actually dead, the readers' empathy with the victim is overwhelming.

True as that may be, it is not the case that the News of the World was just pap for the proletariat. A fraction under 40 per cent of its readership was from the ABC1 socio-economic classes, equivalent to almost 3 million readers: vastly more of that coveted middle-class demographic than is enjoyed by any upmarket paper. Anyway, no longer will the well-to-do reader of the News of the World have to hide his copy between the pages of a more respectable journal as he leaves the newsagent on a Sunday: in fact, he can now pretend that he never bought it in the first place.

This pattern of public self-exculpation is peculiarly similar to attitudes over the credit crunch and the collapse in the housing market. The banks are naturally blamed most of all, for lending too much to people with bad or non-existent credit records (overwhelmingly in the United States). The politicians are blamed for regulating the banks with insufficient vigilance. The central bankers are blamed for keeping interest rates too low during the boom. The Chinese people are blamed for saving too much and thus building up a trade surplus which swept like a tsunami of cheap credit through the Western debtor nations.

Yet should not at least some of the blame for the sub-prime lending fiasco be allocated to individuals who borrowed the money and then could not, or would not, meet the repayments? Of course, they are the victims too, in that they have lost their homes; but the people who have actually lost most money are the lenders. Bear in mind that over 30 per cent of the defaults in the US housing market – the proximate cause of the worldwide credit crunch – are described as "strategic": these are people who threw back the keys to their home to the lenders not because they didn't have sufficient income to pay the monthly debit, but because they worked out that their debt was bigger than the collapsed value and they wanted the capital loss to be the banks' problem rather than theirs. In some cases, an entire nation seems on the point of throwing back the keys to the lender. The rioting in Greece is the principal illustration of this psychology, aptly described by The Independent's Sean O'Grady as like "a tantrum by a spoilt child." By contrast, the Irish people have revealed themselves as full of self-knowledge. When I asked an Irish friend why there had been no rioting against the banks in his country, he said it was "because we accept that we had been borrowing crazily on property as individuals; what's more, we sort of understood it at the time."

If only more of the British could be as wise about their own complicity in the snooping of the red-top press. Instead, like Caliban, they are raging at their own reflection.

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