"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
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
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
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
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
"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.