It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. … In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.
I am not the first person to quote the opening lines from "Decline of the English Murder" this week, and no wonder: George Orwell, who composed that droll little essay in 1946, placed the now-defunctNews of the World in its historical and cultural context as no one else could. Orwell's mid-20th-century British tabloid reader first eats a lunch of "roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding." Then he settles down to drink tea and read scandalous stories, preferably involving the "chairman of the local Conservative Party branch," a "strong Temperance advocate," or someone equally respectable. British tabloid readers spent many Sunday afternoons that way in the decades before Orwell wrote those words. They have gone on doing so ever since.
Over the next few days, many pundits will lament the decline of the press, the rise of sensationalism, and the rampant commercialism that led News of the World reporters to hack into the telephone voicemail accounts of murdered schoolgirls, divorcing celebrities, and grieving parents. But in truth, there is nothing new about any of this. Although the technology has changed, the practices in question—paying the police for stories; the use of subterfuge to obtain personal information; the persecution of celebrities, politicians, or victims of violence—are, in the tabloid world, very old. Certainly they predate Orwell.
Until now, no one has been especially shocked by them. I worked for British newspapers in the early 1990s and remember very clearly the lack of surprise when transcripts of private telephone conversations between Diana, the princess of Wales, and her lover were made public, followed by transcripts of private telephone conversations between the prince of Wales and his lover. Nobody ever quite got to the bottom of either story. Some versions said that they came from ham radio operators, who picked them up by accident. Other versions said they came from MI5, Britain's internal security service.
Either way, they wound up in print, in tabloid newspapers that surely paid somebody for them. Either way, the recordings were illegal. But few cared at the time. The prince and princess of Wales were rich and famous, the public enjoyed watching them squirm, so why should they be allowed to have private conversations?
Nobody seemed especially bothered by police collusion with tabloid reporters, either. Also in the early 1990s, British criminal detectives searched the house of an acquaintance of mine. They confiscated documents as well as private photographs. Later, a few of those photographs appeared in the press, even though they had no relevance to the case. Nobody I knew seemed especially bothered by this. My acquaintance was a well-connected person on his way to jail, so why should he be allowed to control his wife's private pictures?
In its essence, this scandal is no different. Although one London journalist told me last week that an "important line was crossed" when the News of the World accessed the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenage girl, I just don't see why. It's true that some of Dowler's voicemails were deleted, but once you've established the practice of hacking phones—and some 4,000 appear to have been hacked by the News of the World—this surely must seem, to the hackers, like a very minor additional transgression. After all, Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who hacked Dowler's telephone, was acting out of precisely the same motives as the spooks who recorded Charles and Camilla or the police officers who search private houses looking for private pictures. All were in search of information that they intended to sell. And all knew very well that there would be plenty of willing buyers, whether at the News of the World, the Sun, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail—or even at the grander offices of "up-market" newspapers, many of which (we may soon discover) may also have been eager purchasers of illegally obtained information.
And yet—they were in the market because they knew there was a demand. Here is the bottom line: British newspapers pay the police for scandal because the British newspaper-reading public has such an enormous appetite for scandal—especially scandals that bring down the rich and respectable. Here is the irony: The downfall of the News of the World fits this narrative beautifully. And here is a prediction: The public apologies of its owner, Rupert Murdoch, and the public humiliation of News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, are going to please the British newspaper-reading public more than anything else it has read in a very, very long time.