Hackgate and the revenge of the middle classes

After the NoTW, who will be the next victim of broadsheet bullishness? The Daily Mail? Tesco? McDonald's? Primark?

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics UK

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One of the main consequences of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal is an emboldened mood emanating from radical liberals. Barely an hour goes by, let alone a day, without a self-congratulatory notice on how the mighty Murdoch Empire has been wounded by ‘proper’ journalists on the liberal broadsheets. The breathless conclusion reached by one writer is that the recent media events are similar to the Arab Spring revolts. That is, an irrevocable change of the political landscape has happened on British soil.

A rather overheated comparison it may be, but these recent events and the reaction to them do illustrate how liberal middle-class concerns can now shape the fabric of national life. Indeed, in my view the current mood is best described as ‘the revenge of the middle classes’. No longer squeezed between a powerful working-class movement and a coherent ruling class, middle-class radicals can now make a very big impact. A ‘good thing too’, many a Guardian reader would undoubtedly say, but for anyone committed to personal autonomy, civil liberties and decent living standards, it is actually a pretty alarming turn of events.

The exposure of criminality, corruption and cover-ups among a major news corporation and the Metropolitan Police is undoubtedly a major scoop. By hacking into the answerphone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and deleting some of those voice messages in the hope of netting new family revelations, NoTW staff have torpedoed the reputation of News International, almost beyond repair. 

But the particular action taken by such morally illiterate investigators was never the sole motive of the respectable journalists targeting the News of the World. Rather, it is what this ex-tabloid newspaper represents that is considered heinous: a low-rent, tittle-tattle scandal sheet which is read and devoured by allegedly uneducated morons. Indeed, some claim that even following the NoTW‘s closure, there is still the wider problem of ‘tabloid culture’ in British society. The outcome of the hacking scandal will undoubtedly lead to state restrictions on press freedom and encourage sanitised self-censorship among redtop editors. Is that a good thing?

Liberal broadsheet journalists have been preoccupied with tabloid newspapers and their proprietors for decades. Since the 1980s, Labour Party leftists have taken their frustrations out on Murdoch, the Sun and the News of the World, blaming them for Labour’s lack of electoral appeal. But it’s not only the political stripe of certain tabloids that irritates liberals and left-wingers; it is also their general lowbrow and sometimes sleazy image. It is now largely forgotten, but over a decade ago many respectable journalists were obsessed with Richard Desmond and his purchase of the Express Newspaper group. Their objection was that Desmond had made his fortune through soft-porn magazines and glossy celebrity mag OK! and therefore was not considered fit to run a newspaper. As it happens, both his porn mags and his celebrity rag are perfectly legal and legitimate businesses and, in a free society, they should be available for consumption as individuals see fit. Desmond was correct to state that his sex-related businesses operate fully within the law. 

None of this, however, prevented a relentless media campaign against Desmond and his papers. The aim in this instance was not to expose any criminality, but simply to express disgust for how Desmond had made his fortune and for the trashy content of his magazines and newspapers. In other words, Desmond should not be allowed to run a legal business as he sees fit and his publications should not be allowed to hit the shelves, lest they offend the sensibilities of well-heeled broadsheet types. The revelations of widespread criminality at the NoTW should not blind us to what has always motivated the persistent critics of the tabloids: old-fashioned snobbery.

What is striking is how broadsheet journalists get worked up into a frenzy over something they don’t particularly like, and then wish the state would ‘do something’ to make such irritants disappear. More of the time, they are not addressing a real problem that impacts on the wider population, but something which they see as a problem in need of rectifying. Often these campaigning journalists secretly enjoy anything that confirms their prejudices about the working classes and their vile consumption habits. By taking a stand against tabloid newspapers, fast-food restaurants or big supermarkets, journalists are flattering their own conceit that they are not like the Those People who consume such weird products. That sense of differentiation provides a powerful motivating force to want to do something about the sources of common ugliness. 

Over the past decade, many broadsheet commentators have pursued stories that aim to damage or even close down a business they morally disapprove of. When McDonald’s announced a loss of profits and the closure of hundreds of restaurants in the UK, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the Guardian expressed his delight and said he hoped there would be further closures. There was a similar response when Starbucks also announced the closure of outlets and the sacking of hundreds of people. People’s living standards, it seems, should not get in the way of making life appear more aesthetically pleasing (whatever that means) for sections of the middle classes. Likewise, the celebrations over the closure of the NoTW largely overlooked the fact that 200 people lost their jobs (and around seven million people lost their Sunday morning read).

There is something morally reprehensible about actively seeking to deprive ordinary people of a wage. So the current campaign against Tesco ultimately aims to close down its stores and thus prevent people from working or shopping there. Far from being morally virtuous, many of these journalistic campaigns bring real harm and suffering to thousands of ordinary people. They end up depriving people of the chance to earn money by working for companies that their ‘betters’ disapprove of. 

The NoTW’s corpse is barely in the ground and already high-minded journalists are talking bullishly about possibly getting rid of papers like the Daily Mail, too. ‘The Mail… is in some respects worse than Murdoch’s tabloids’, said Peter Wilby in the Guardian. ‘It is every bit as hardline and influential on law-and-order issues as the Sun. It has been a consistent enemy of liberal policies on, for example, abortions. It remains deeply hostile to scientists warning of global warming, while all Murdoch’s papers – thanks mainly to his son James – support green policies.’ No mention here of criminal activities amongst journalists; no, it is the fact that the Mail‘s outlook doesn’t chime 100 per cent with that of metropolitan liberals which really winds up the moral crusaders.

Leaving aside the phone-hacking issue, the recent cultural targeting of the NoTW fits alongside similar liberal campaigns against Richard Desmond, Tesco, Primark, McDonald’s and now, it seems, the Mail. Liberal middle-class sense of worth is largely based on differentiation from mainstream society and Middle England. The revenge of the middle classes, essentially against a mainstream society they can’t stand, is potentially becoming a serious threat to ordinary people’s lifestyles and cultural choices.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics UK


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