A few months ago, an otherwise insular Indian media was suddenly replete with articles written by wide-eyed feature writers profiling an Iraqi journalist who happened to be visiting this country. Since most amateurish profiles of make- believe celebrities vacationing in the Golden Triangle are innocuous page-fillers, there was nothing unique about the Iraqi making it to the inside pages of the ‘quality’ newspapers.
This gentleman was, however, a little different. He hadn’t made a meaningful documentary film that had been appreciated in Karlovy Vary or undertaken a study on the effects of malnutrition in the conflict zones of sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, he hadn’t even been part of an aid convoy to beat Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The visitor was famous because he was the reporter who threw a shoe at President George W. Bush at a press conference. He was the man who had initiated the shoe-throwing epidemic, a phenomenon that has not left India untouched.
In an age where the quest for five minutes of fame is relentless, it will be natural for a British tabloid, eager to capture some of the market vacated by the News of the World, to offer a generous fee to the 26-year-old Jonathan May-Bowles. This resident of Windsor achieved at least two hours of international fame last Tuesday evening by trying to smear Rupert Murdoch with shaving foam in a committee room at the Palace of Westminster. May-Bowles, otherwise a stand-up comic who performs under the stage name Jonnie Marbles, has been doggedly, if somewhat unsuccessfully, chasing fame. If the Murdoch-owned Times (to which I gleefully admit to having an online subscription) is to be believed, the foam-thrower “is a comedian who once stood on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth to broadcast people’s intimate secrets”.
The “intimate secret” he apparently blurted out to the fragile Murdoch was profoundly revelatory: “You greedy billionaire.” For these three accusatory words May-Bowles will be — for a few days, and to the Guardian-reading class warriors at least — the 21st century’s incarnation of the Tolpuddle martyrs.
Of course he could have done better. Indeed, as A.J.P. Taylor once observed about Metternich, most men “could have done better while shaving”.
The sheer banality of May-Bowles’s outburst was, however, a digression. What was significant was that this individual felt sufficiently motivated to thrust an improvized shaving foam pie into the face of the man he had come to view as the Voldemort of the contemporary world. The check-shirted Jonnie Marbles may well have been courting some cheap publicity but he was also, in his own mind, hitting at the power of evil.
The whole saga that led to the closure of Britain’s most wacko Sunday tabloid, precipitated the parliamentary inquisition of the Murdochs and the much-reviled Rebekah Brooks, led to the resignation of the chief of Scotland Yard for recklessly availing of freebies and even had the British prime minister accused of colossal misjudgment amounted to a savage public indictment of Britain’s intrusive media culture. It was by implication also a global ridicule of British taste. The tabloids, after all, had pitted themselves above all norms of decency and even the law because the fruits of its dubious information-gathering techniques had a wide market. Just as the illicit drugs trade can prosper because there is widespread consumer demand for a hallucinatory ‘fix’, the tabloid culture was nurtured and sustained because the voyeuristic urges of readers had crossed the limits of decency.
For a short while after the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, there was a grudging acceptance that things had gone a bit too far and that celebrities too deserved a private life. But that realization had, unfortunately, proved woefully short-lived. By the time the News of the World undertook “industrial scale” phone tapping, life was back to normal.
What is also significant about this culture of mass voyeurism —which went far beyond the traditional working-class diet of girlie pictures on page three of the Sun —was that it predated the entry of Murdoch into the British market. The business-savvy Australian-born media baron may have been a trendsetter in many respects. He took no nonsense from the pampered, over-unionized print workers who made Fleet Street financially unviable in the 1970s; his managers (and editors) forced journalists to be more responsive to readers rather than to their own eccentricities; and he made innovative strides in the pricing and marketing of newspapers.
What Murdoch did not, however, do was to present Britain with tabloid cretinism. That phenomenon was alive and thriving even when Murdoch was an undergraduate in Oxford. Indeed, there were accomplished British journalists who sincerely believed that tabloids were the most effective instruments to communicate with a section of the population that was otherwise wary of the printed word. Tabloid journalism, after all, also involved a very high measure of craftsmanship.
They weren’t wrong. The sight of the menial worker trudging to work on a cold and wet winter morning with a copy of either the Sun or the Daily Mirror under his arm remains one of the defining images of Britain. With a crafty mix of celebrity news, scandal, sports and, above all, catchy headlines that blended fact with prejudice, the tabloids gave the working classes a shared sense of community. To succeed in this fiercely competitive business, the editors had to have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the popular mood. This may explain why successive British prime ministers and Opposition leaders have chosen former tabloid journalists to head their communications departments.
The perception that Murdoch set the stage for the debasement of British popular culture has taken firm root among a section of the Left-liberal elite that cannot reconcile to the grim realities of a tasteless plebeian universe. The reality, however, suggests something quite different. Apart from the Sun and News of the World, Murdoch also ran The Times, Sunday Times and, since last year, Wall Street Journal. There was no one-size-fits-all philosophy that governed the functioning of these vastly different titles. If News of the World plumbed the depths of sleaze and scandal, The Times and Sunday Times remained mirrors of a stodgy and increasingly trendy British establishment. The core values of these venerable titles weren’t compromised by the fact that the Murdochs did their utmost to schmooze the political class.
Unlike Lord Conrad Black, the Canadian former owner of The Daily Telegraph, who held strong political views and was inclined towards an ideological wing of the Conservative Party, Murdoch’s preference was for individuals, not causes. And this desire to always remain well connected stemmed from the fact that the expansion of his media business also depended on the exercise of governmental discretion. By its very nature, the information business involved the maintenance of a relationship with the political class. If that relationship soured — as indeed it now has — the business plans of the corporation were bound to be affected. It is no accident that following the News of the World furore, Murdoch had to withdraw his bid for the control of BSkyB — a control that depended not on the free market but on a ministerial nod. Murdoch and the political class were bound in a symbiotic relationship: they needed each other.
After a few heads have rolled and the dust settles, that relationship will resume. And because the fire was wrongly directed at Murdoch alone, it will also be business as usual for the tabloids. The impish mayor of London, Boris Johnson, may well be right in describing this week’s circus as one of Britain’s “periodic firestorms of hypocrisy”.