Saturday, 16 July 2011
Hooptedoodle #31a - The Newspaper Boat
I remember it clearly. A couple of years ago, driving north past Newcastle upon Tyne in pouring rain, listening, transfixed, to my car radio. Live, a House of Commons committee was grilling some of the former deities of the UK banking industry, and had reduced them to stuttering, cringeing foolishness. Very satisfying - I cherish the recollection, and I'm not altogether sure why - the economic disaster had arrived and was clear for all to see, there was no prospect of good news for some time to come. Whatever the shortcomings of our system of democracy, however disenchanted I may be with politics in general, there was something deeply gratifying about the elected representatives of ordinary people really sticking it to the bad guys. Something not unlike a war crimes trial, I guess.
It is unworthy to seek the downfall of the rich and mighty - it smacks of envy and schadenfreude and a number of other things that I claim to despise, but I had a very strong urge to pull over, get out of the car, and punch the air and shout "Yes!" - right there in the rain.
Here it is again. The public humiliation and ridicule of the Murdoch family and their unpleasant associates promises to be the subject of more roadside air-punching. I look forward to it with some relish, but in the meantime I am interested to observe the polarisation of the newspaper reporting of the saga. The non-Murdoch parts of the press are showing more than a little glee over events, but they must surely be aware that the hole in the far end of the boat will threaten them all eventually. The BBC still mentions "the media" as though it were speaking of someone else.
Let me (as always) attempt to draw a (debatable) parallel from my personal experience. I worked for many years in the UK insurance industry. I worked for a mutual company, which is mostly an extinct species now, but at that time was alive and well. One day the unthinkable happened - one of our mutual competitors was suddenly, and very publicly, in big trouble. Solvency doubts, dreadful mismanagement, cavalier disregard of customers' interests, alleged falsification of regulatory returns - very big trouble indeed. My boss of the day, a man of academic grandure but great silliness, was absolutely thrilled that a competitor should be removed from the list of people we had to worry about, and could not - for the life of him - understand that the entire industry was now tainted. Public confidence was damaged - no-one smelled good; this was, in fact, the beginning of a downturn for insurance which eventually wrecked a number of other firms, including the one we were working for.
I believe we are seeing something very similar. Surely the shockwave in the newspaper industry will be far-reaching. Something fundamental has changed - the game as we knew it is, I think, bust. There is no real room for anyone to feel smug or safe, it will affect them all sooner or later. The long term effect on individual rights, privacy and the public taste for tittle-tattle remains to be seen.