The human cost of selling news

Written August 2015
Time has moved on in a ferocious way since this, but the fundamental points remain.

This week I've finished reading Nick Davies' Hack Attack, his riveting first-person account of the Guardian’s 8 year campaign to expose News International’s systematic invasion of privacy and illegal surveillance, and the tightly knotted conspiracy of silence which included the entire power elite of the country: the Metropolitan Police, the PCC, senior politicians and the rest of Fleet Street. I was also struck by Paul Mason’s column in The Guardian (18/05/13) where he offers these striking observations on Mad Max: Fury Road; a film which he calls 'one of the most grotesque and, at the same time, most perfect dystopias ever presented on screen. […} The reasons why are not hard to fathom, but they are unpleasant to face. First, the world around us is in flames, and has been so more or less constantly for decades.

'The period from 1945-79 had its downsides, but the imagery it left on celluloid reflects the mental life of a generation that knew peace, prosperity, and restraint. After 1979, with the “new cold war”, it became possible to imagine the world ending in a ball of flame, and what a post-apocalyptic society might look like. 'As we learned about what death-squads do – from El Salvador to Angola – the themes of torture and sexual violence began to inhabit dystopian fiction. The dystopian genre is so strong that the audience implicitly understands its conventions. There is always a descent into tribalism; it always involves slavery and violence against women. And usually the dystopia is a steady state. If there once was order, it is forgotten. If there is rebellion, it is pointless. […] Either we are failing to imagine heroism as the journey from alienation to redemption, or something in the real world is making such complex heroism seem pointless. I think it is violence.

'In 1979, in order to actually witness what a .50-calibre bullet does to a human body you would have had to be reporting or fighting on the frontline of a dirty war.  […] Now in all action movies the .50-calibre bullet routinely explodes the ribcage, the knife across the throat jets blood into the air, the Orc’s brains are filleted even in movies aimed at children. No action movie set is properly dressed without random body parts strewn around. '

The link here is that the violence—both physical and mental—is commercial. It is sold to us by profit-driven corporations who understand the bizarre rule that humans will pay much more for bad news than they will for good? So plainly we have noone to blame but ourselves for this deluge of violent and exploitative images that engulfs us.

The issue that confronts us as Quakers is how we frame a public debate that engages with the psychology of violence in human nature – how and why humans find it exciting to the degree that commercial operators see a profit in reproducing it – how we can present a credible alternative?

There is a further issue underpinning this and that is that violence is very largely a function of testosterone and therefore a male issue. 78.7% of murders worldwide are by males (90.5% in the US). 80.5% of children under 5 in the US are murdered by men. The statistics in England are no less striking.   

Censorship would solve nothing, even if it were feasible. Historically  many moral outrages—slavery, animal-baiting, child labour and prostitution—were normalised in their society, as was domestic violence. Yet pioneers have succeeded in bringing about changes of attitude in two out of three, and the tide is turning in the last as well. Surely it is time for the Quaker Testimony on War to be remodeled to take account of images of violence as well as the violence itself – and more particularly to question their function?

I know that news gatherers constantly agonise about what is acceptable to show on TV. But the problem is that we simply know too much and too quickly about the latest examples of inhumanity overseas. How can Quakers contribute light rather than heat to this issue? And to the degree that we cannot, how can educate the public and promote an alternative perspective, and if so, what should that perspective be, and what is the most constructive way of framing the debate?

Is it even possible to tackle the ubiquity and ease with which the toxic mix of violent images, including violent sexual images, and advertising are combined? Where are the pinch point to which moral pressure could be applied? Hack Attack demonstrates that the Murdoch Empire use of unparalleled mental violence and invasion of privacy was driven by profit and combined with unparalleled political cunning and ferocity towards anyone who opposed it. There was never any moral justification in parading the intimate secrets of those they monstered, but in everything they were driven by a diseased form of profit-driven journalism masquerading as free speech. After reading the book it occurred to me that there was a direct similarity with  the US gun lobby: both they and the Murdoch empire take the moral stance that any actions which don’t contravene the law (or aren't discovered) are legal. The book says that in 2006/7 when Scotland Yard refused to investigate, not merely were the top brass of the Met on regular dining terms with Rebekah Brooks-Wade, but four of them were having extra-marital affairs and would have known that News of The World would have known.    

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