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A world in which everyone lies

01 August 2014

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"HAVE you seen The Sun's front page?" a friend emailed me. "Given all the news at the moment they could have chosen from. . ." The front page shows a four-year-old boy whose face is clearly visible, who has on his chest a red mark - supposedly the mark of the beast, but looking from here like the mark of a vacuum cleaner.

It is almost August, and the big news stories are all about foreign children being killed in wars in which the British are not involved. Guardian readers, Radio 4 listeners, and other heirs to the imperial administrative classes all think that we should care about the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine - even, when we remember them, the wars in Africa.

The Sun knows better. You can see its logic. The horrors of Mosul, Donetsk, and Gaza all have one thing in common: there is nothing significant that any politician in this country can do to stop them. This, as much as anything, explains why they bore readers. When you know you cannot change things, it becomes much harder to see them in the first place.

THE tendency to caricature, and to scapegoat, is quite as strong among middle-class readers as among working-class ones, but it is directed at different ends. A good example of this is on show at the National Theatre right now: the new play Great Britain by Richard Bean deals with phone-hacking and tabloid culture in the same way as the War Picture Library comics dealt with German culture.

It is a series of pantomime scenes in which the lower classes are held up for mockery. If I worked for News International, or the Daily Mail - and I have friends who work for both - I would be fairly upset. Since, in fact, I work for The Guardian, I squirmed with shame.

There is one scene in which the Rebekah Brooks character, played by Billie Piper, sleeps with the Conservative Prime Minister after her proprietor gives him a large cheque in exchange for destroying the BBC; but, apart from that, almost all the episodes are drawn from things that really happened. There is large-scale phone-hacking; betrayal of sources; a ludicrous figure who sifts through the bins of targets to order; a woman parachuted in as editor who knows nothing whatsoever about newspapers - although that happened to The Independent before it became a tabloid.

There is also a comically stupid gay Asian Metropolitan police commissioner, who says things such as: "We have shot a disproportionate number of young black men compared to white ones this year. We will restore the proper proportion." Although acted with gusto, and sometimes funny, this part seems to exist to make the audience feel even smugger about its lack of humourless political correctness. 

THERE is, though, absolutely no sense of the reasons why real people do, or did, any of those things in real life. For that, you might turn to Nick Davies in The Guardian. The paper carried a long excerpt from his book on phone-hacking. Davies, it will be remembered, was the man who brought down the News of the World with a perfectly placed story about the hacking of the late Milly Dowler's phone: a story that had everything except strict truth. He is a damn good hack, though, and he has read the evidence.

"The friends of tabloid newspapers often point out that their journalism exists only because millions of people pay money to read it. The internal messages go one step further, disclosing . . . an apparently endless line of men and women who have collected some fragment of human interest and are now offering it for sale (almost always for sale).

"As the messages flow on, the commercial side of this auction takes second place to something else more striking, something more human and more secret - a casual treachery.

"A man has got in touch to say that he has just spent the night with a young actress from a TV soap, and that's a story worth selling; and, even better, he says that he managed to sneak a photograph of her giving him oral sex.

"Everything is for sale. Nobody is exempt. What begins to emerge is the internal machinery of an industry that treats human life itself - the soft tissue of the most private, sensitive moments - as a vast quarry full of raw material to be scooped up and sifted and exploited for entertainment."

With very few exceptions, people go into this industry because they want to find the truth and spread it; and, with very few exceptions, they find themselves in a world in which everyone, all the time, lies. To watch that happening would have made the real subject of a real play.

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