When stories of phone hacking originally emerged, Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks were painted as the arch-villains of the piece, becoming synonymous with all that was wrong and shameful about the British press. As time passes, however, they are increasingly being characterised as figures of fun – comic buffoons whose time has come and upon whom the tables (and the media spotlight) have turned. The revelations about #horsegate were the last in a long line of mildly comic revelations that have emerged about Brooks and Murdoch thanks to Leveson, and the public seem only too willing to fan the flames of disclosure.
Maybe we should be making hay whilst the sun shines – it’s not often that we have the opportunity to watch such a spectacle played out in the public eye. Where once the House of Commons was the home of Punch and Judy displays of machismo and posturing, it appears that Leveson is now the place to see and be seen. It’s the new celebrity haunt – anyone who’s anyone has been, from Hugh Grant, to Sienna Miller, Charlotte Church to Heather Mills. Is Leveson this year’s Celebrity Big Brother? A new opportunity for ‘celebrities’ to get their faces in the papers?
Yes, some of the revelations coming out of Leveson have been very sad, and certainly call in to question the ethical standards of the journalists and editors involved. Other allegations, particularly those that have surfaced about the ‘culture of illegal payments’ at the Metropolitan police, are serious and should be treated as such. That phone hacking was hurtful, intrusive and, ultimately, illegal is not in question. It is an indictment both of the Metropolitan police, and of the media involved. Appropriate punishment – whatever that may be – should and will undoubtedly follow. But whether Leveson is the appropriate means for reaching this end is becoming increasingly questionable. As a show trial it fits the bill perfectly – but it’s show rather than substance.
Perhaps the Leveson inquiry is more pantomime than Punch and Judy. The choreography of celebrity goodies versus media baddies has certainly gone according to script. We seem to be increasingly inclined to poke fun at the participants, to view the inquiry as titillation and an opportunity to publicly shame the wrong doers involved, rather than a genuine opportunity to get to the bottom of what has always been regarded as a less than transparent industry, even by insiders.
But perhaps this is where the value of Leveson lies. Not in holding the press up to public scrutiny in the vain hope that it will bring about a free, flourishing, press. The real value lies in doing to the media what it has been doing to others for years – holding them up to public scrutiny, sometimes to public shame, and yes, to poke fun at the media moguls behind it all – the comedy villains and villainesses who hid behind the headlines and who are now the subject of them. It’s spectacle, not substance. The opportunity for taking the Leveson inquiry seriously has bolted, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy the ride.