In amongst the chatter and hum generated by this week’s big scandal, a disturbing idea has been nestling.
“When it was just celebrities, no-one really had much sympathy,” commented the newsreaders, as they tracked the phone-hacking scandal’s journey from tiny acorn to giant oak.
“Of course, no-one really cares about celebrities who get paid £5m a film,” posited the panel on Newsnight, as they analysed the fallout from the discovery that people other than the fabulously beautiful and wealthy had been hacked.
“Now it’s not just celebrities but real people involved I care far more,” mused the twitterati, “in fact, now I can muster some real moral outrage.”
As a nation, when we discovered what the News of the World had been up to regarding, not just Milly Dowler, but all the other poor victims of senseless tragedy, we drew in a collective horrified breath. And rightly so. These people had had their privacy violated in a most dreadful way. How could this happen, we asked ourselves. How could it have been considered appropriate, even for a second, to listen in on the private messages of a murdered teen or a grieving family, just for the sake of getting the scoop? When did journalists become so callous, so evil? How did we get here?
The answer is, we got here by degrees, and it started with our disturbing idea that celebrities are somehow not real human beings.
No-one cared about this story when it was just the phones of the rich and famous. Then ‘real people’ got involved and suddenly it’s a scandal that has our political leaders scrambling around to get involved in the mudslinging, suddenly we feel strongly enough to bully companies into withdrawing their advertising, suddenly it’s bad enough that a paper that ran for 160 years is closed down, virtually overnight. Suddenly. Shouldn’t our moral outrage have started a little earlier?
Hacking into someone’s private phone and listening in on their messages is an appalling breach of privacy. Why was it not that big a deal when the people it was happening to were rich and successful? The idea that, because a person is vastly more wealthy than we are, they will not feel the same sense of violation and betrayal that we would, or that they would, but it wouldn’t matter because they’re so rich so who cares what they think anyway, is as hideous in its own way as the actions of the phone hackers. What gives us the right to de-humanise someone just because they have more than we have?
Celebrities are real people. We may not like them, and we may not like the rewards they get for their efforts compared to the rewards we get for ours, but they haven’t made a deal with the devil. They haven’t stood under a blasted oak at a crossroads at midnight and signed away their souls in return for getting to fulfill their creative potential. For years now we’ve allowed tabloid journalists to bamboozle us with the idea that because actors and musicians are in the public eye, they’re ‘asking for it’, that any intrusion into their lives is justified because they dare to step into the spotlight of fame. It’s a fallacy, one we’ve believed for far too long. No-one deserves to have their private conversations eavesdropped on, or to have the details of their sexual and romantic relationships spilled to a red-top, or to have their children followed to school and back for the sake of a picture, or to be harried and pressured and scrutinised and treated like an entertaining pet. Some people will do anything to be famous, but most truly famous people are simply extremely talented at their jobs. It’s hardly something to be punished for, but punish them we do. And how easy, then, for the journos to take that extra step, to lose sight of who they’re targeting. If Hugh Grant’s feelings don’t count then, really, do anybody’s, when there’s a story at stake? If a reporter, or a private detective, is prepared to treat one human being in that way, should we really be surprised that they can just as easily do it to another?
So, we may well ask ourselves how we arrived at this point, this week. It was clearly a journey we never intended to go on, but we took the first step when we started separating out little groups of people in society we felt we didn’t need to care about. Because once we stop caring about someone just because they’re rich, or famous, or successful, it’s a short road to not caring about anyone.