Where's the real rally?
26 February 2015
John Cleese was the main attraction at the Hacked Off ‘rally’ yesterday in one of the ornate committee rooms in the House of Commons. The carved pews, the silk wallpaper behind the vast oil paintings and the stately windows over the Thames make a rally atmosphere almost impossible.
However, speaker after speaker took their turn on the court-like bench, denouncing the heinous behaviour of the press. And some of the victims of the worst atrocities were in the room. We did not know which. Cleese was apparently on the verge of tears as he ran through a list of tragedies that had been commoditised and compounded, like the Watsons, whose fifteen year old son committed suicide clutching the outrageous coverage of his sister’s murder.
Harriet Harman was explicit. When any normal person would be full of compassion, how could people behave so callously as to see these tragedies as nothing more than raw material for selling newspapers, with total disregard for the effect on those in grief?
The atmosphere warmed as the injustice began to get the better of the Pugin grandeur.
A business model has developed that seeks out those people who are more vulnerable than many of us can imagine, whose lives have taken some tragic turn so sharp that it stirs in us a sense of horror and pity. It takes that public empathy as demand, and satisfies it with a twisted prurience that would be unconscionable to any reader. All so that the reader’s eye might alight on a discounted mattress on the facing page.
And any effort to break this model is met with howls of North Korea and Zimbabwe from the publishers and editors who profit from it. The editors who write their own ethical code of conduct and then break it every day. The editors who control the regulator that enforces it.
Cleese, as was expected of him, made a joke. "Of course they want to regulate themselves, we'd all like to regulate ourselves wouldn't we? Builders, accountants, murderers, they'd all like to regulate themselves. The murderers would make a very good case - they'd say we murdered a lot of people, we know people who have murdered people. We really are best qualified to regulate …"
A little later, Evan Harris, the former MP who works for Hacked Off, and who was presiding over the proceedings, read out a tweet: "Cleese compares journalists to murderers".
How could someone sit through example after example of the hurt caused by inaccurate reporting just looking for soundbites that could be deliberately taken out of context and misrepresented?
Harris identified the culprit as Alex Wickham who writes for the Guido Fawkes blog. He then lost control of the room. "How do you sleep at night?" "Cretin!" they jeered. "It's a direct quote" Wickham began to protest. Harris tried to shut him up. He didn't want to give him a platform here, he already had his megaphone (Wickham has 10,000 twitter followers). "You're welcome to write whatever lies about me you like" said Cleese. But the congregation were now a crowd, and someone shouted at him to stand. He stood up and closed his eyes to accept the scorn. This had become a rally of the unpleasant kind. He stayed just long enough to tweet in the present tense, then left.
On the face of it we see a room full of grandees: front bench politicians, film stars, literary giants and professors. We see a plucky young journalist standing up for his principles, in the lion's den, holding the lions to account, scapegoated and driven from the room.
And he did compare journalists to murderers didn't he, in a way? Sure it was rhetoric, a classic reductio ad absurdum, but in a literal sense he sort of did didn't he? And aren't we all a little disingenuous when we relate our opponents' arguments? We're not usually trying to make their case for them are we? And it isn't a straightforward matter. That's why Leveson needed 2000 pages to get the fine balance of a system of independence without interference.
But who is really Goliath here? "I got out alive" Wickham tweeted to a hero's welcome. Piers Morgan (Twitter followers: 4.4 million) took time off from his day job moaning about the Arsenal manager to tweet "John Cleese actually compared journalists to murderers. And he has the gall to lecture us about ethics & morality? Pipe down you old fool."
Dan Hodges (33,000) did not take time off from his day job of explaining why Ed Miliband is wrong about everything: "Anyone who wants to know what Hacked Off mean by a free press should take a look at @WikiGuido timeline..."
So, what's the aggregated public impression? John Cleese says journalists are like murderers. Why? I dunno. Who cares. Probably because he's just another celebrity who can't keep his trousers on. It's lucky for John Cleese that he isn't standing for election. But then if he was he wouldn't have said it would he? Probably he wouldn't have been there.