Books: Even As We Speak — Plain-Clothes Police State |
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Plain-Clothes Police State

A hidden camera is far enough. Intercepted telephone calls were already far enough, but we were too fascinated with the results to be sufficiently disgusted by how they were obtained. The results obtained by the hidden camera are nothing remarkable, if you discount the good looks of the subject, which we knew about anyway. The manner by which those good looks were on this occasion recorded, however, was so repellent that even the tabloid editors — including, apparently, the editor of the Sunday Mirror, after his fellow editors rounded on him — finally realized that a line had been crossed, although none of them seemed to grasp that they had all crossed the same line years before. Thugs who had been making a good living beating up helpless victims suddenly discovered that one of their number had supplemented his bare hands with brass knuckles. ‘You fool; they cried, ‘don’t you realize it’s supposed to be fists?’

One of the characteristics of the totalitarian mentality is to erect opportunism to the status of a principle. To describe the behaviour of a pack of not very bright journalists in totalitarian terms might sound extreme. But it is another kind of wishful thinking, and a dangerously misleading one, to suppose that totalitarian impulses don’t exist in a democracy. They are repressed, but they are there. One totalitarian impulse is to create a subhuman class which may be persecuted without compunction because it is beneath compassion. The moral squalor of French journalism under Nazi occupation was no sudden putrefaction. The rot set in with the Dreyfus case. Anti-Semitism polluted French journalism — even the higher, literary journalism — in a long process which had established the Jews as a special case well before the Nazis arrived to round them up.

Mass murder was only the sudden physical translation of a long spiritual contempt which had been propagated in French journals. Some of the journalists were not without talent. But they were without pity, and what had given their callousness free play was the principle of free speech. It was a cruel paradox.

In Britain the same paradox now ensnares the famous. It takes a less cruel form, and is scarcely likely to have such a vile outcome; but while being careful not to diminish a great tragedy by equating it with something inherently more trivial, one can still suggest that there is an instructive comparison to be drawn. In recent years there has been a steadily growing tendency to treat the famous as if they were without the right to a private life — always an important step in depriving a group of human dignity, even if, as in this case, there is no further wish to deprive it of life itself. (Quite the opposite: to ensure a supply equal to the demand, the press is ready to help almost anyone become famous, if only to provide fodder for the style-file supplements that we all deplore even as we fight over the first look.)

It can be said that with politicians and other public officials the private life and the public role are intertwined, so that everything they want concealed, even if it breaks no laws, should be open for inspection. (It was said, often, by Richard Ingrams of Private Eve, although when his turn came he was quick enough to decide that he had been a private citizen all along.) But the thin argument grows thinner still when it comes to those public figures who are famous for their achievements. Some of them seek publicity for all they do, and so should be ready to take the flak with the kudos; but clearly most do not, or, if they once did, learned better, holding, surely correctly, that the appreciation they attract is for their public performance, and that their private lives are their own business. Since most journalists obviously feel the same way about themselves, they know they are wrong to contend otherwise, but increasingly they have done so anyway, the contention growing more hysterical as its self-serving basis stands revealed. It has been years now since anyone prominent in any field could offer himself to be the subject of a profile without taking his life in his hands. By the time open season was declared on the Prince and Princess of Wales, bad faith among journalists had already whipped itself up into a righteous passion. It is often said in print, in the more august journals, that the royal family made a mistake in letting publicity into the Palace; but this is just a pious way of saying that they asked for it. The idea that they brought it on themselves is basic to the cast of mind which invents a subhuman class as a preparation for giving it the treatment. From the Peloponnesian war onwards, for the guards watching the prisoners starving in the rock quarry there has always been that consoling thought: It’s all their fault for letting us do this to them.

The more august journals have had good sport in recent days pointing out that the less august ones are steeped in confusion, what with the Sun high-hatting the Mirror over tactics scarcely less questionable than its own. Posh editors ought to shed their delusions. To anyone on the receiving end of this stuff — which includes the public, who feel far closer to the Princess than to any editor — the press looks like one thing, and that thing is a juggernaut: oppressive, relentless and overwhelmingly nasty, a sort of plain-clothes police state. The cheap press stirs up the muck and the expensive press sifts through it, spreading it about so that everyone gets a whiff.

This unfortunate vertical integration of grunge and informed comment is naturally best exemplified by the Murdoch papers, whose upper-echelon editors have long been obliged to pretend that their colleagues down in the yellow depths have nothing to do with them. Wehrmacht commanders who claimed to have got all the way from Berlin to Moscow and back again without noticing what the SS was up to were not believed. Those who did notice but said it wasn’t their responsibility deserved a hearing, but couldn’t complain if they were heard sceptically. Not that I hold, as some do, that Rupert Murdoch is an evil tyrant. My energetic compatriot is not to be dismissed so easily. He is a man of principle. But the principle is commercial. He has well-reasoned intellectual objections to any institution that can’t be quoted on the stock exchange. His broadsheet editors, however strong their illusion of independence, are perforce caught up in his heroic voyage to a future where no tradition, however hallowed, will restrain enterprise.

But other broadsheet editors should be slow to assume that they aren’t at least partly in the same boat, even if they are kicking in the opposite direction to its drift. By discussing the mess that the tabloids have created, they can’t help but reinforce the impression that the press has turned into a remorseless machine for chewing up the private lives of eminent people and spitting out the pieces.

Editors of responsible broadsheets and magazines, suitably horrified by this latest excess, nevertheless announce that a privacy law would be a cure more virulent than the disease. They are probably right, but could be surprised by the dearth of public outrage if such a law is brought in. Nobody outside the system really believes that voluntary curbs will work for long. Like Mr Murdoch’s sudden conversion to a decent reticence, they will be seen as a stratagem, a lull declared by the storm. The best answer would be for the posh papers to leave the pop papers strictly alone in their strange world of soft-core pornography and freeze-frame soap opera. The pops would be less noxious if they were isolated. For that to happen, however, the political parties, and especially the Conservative Party, would have to stop cooperating with them. Hillary Clinton has never written a column for the National Enquirer. It is not pleasant for admirers of Virginia Bottomley’s sunny face to see it smiling above her byline in some festering rag featuring transsexual mud-wrestlers on the opposite page, and it was always a poser, when Lady Thatcher was in power, to see her keeping company with Woodrow Wyatt, considering the company he was keeping in the News of the World.

Both in money and in votes it pays to slum, but the poisonous side-effect is to lend the junk papers legitimacy, and so foster the illusion that journalism is a profession, instead of what it is, a trade. Plumbing is a trade because the man who fixes your tap and the man who wrecks your sink are both called plumbers. Medicine is a profession because the man who takes out your diseased kidney is called a doctor and the man who takes out your healthy one and sells it is called a criminal. The solidarity between good and bad journalists is illusory. It would help if they were not all so keen to sit down together at such functions as the annual What the Papers Say luncheon, which I myself lost the urge to attend when I realized that I might inadvertently clink glasses with the editor who helped to kill Russell Harty.

Splitting the quality press from the trash press would not be easy, especially within the Murdoch empire as at present constituted, but if it could be done it would at least have the benefit of resolving the permanent identity crisis of Peter McKay, who fills half his column in one kind of paper lamenting the fatigue induced by reading about the Princess of Wales in the other kind of paper, to which he himself regularly contributes on the subject of the Princess of Wales. Ben Jonson would have made him the hero of a play. Kinder spirits would put him out of his misery.

Meanwhile the Princess of Wales is in hers, and the Prince along with her, if I know him. I do know him to speak to, and her too, but in both cases the speaking acquaintance will undoubtedly evaporate when this piece comes out, because both of them must have long ago grown sick of having their relationship talked about in the press, and the press definitely includes this part of the press talking about that part of the press. But with the damage done, I might as well throw in my two cents’ worth, to go with the million dollars’ worth of unsolicited advice that the sundered twain are inundated with every day. I think that the Prince and Princess of Wales, much as they both loathe what press intrusiveness has done to them since their separation, have rather underestimated its role in driving them apart in the first place, and that if they could put some of the blame where it belongs, instead of all of it on each other, they might be persuaded to get back together behind the barricades, if only to put up a fight against this monster before it consumes the rest of us.

The monster is not republicanism, but press intrusion into private life. As it happens, I am for the monarchy, but only as a preference. In my own homeland, Australia, the alleged tide of republicanism is already flowing the other way, largely because the people have begun to remember that Prime Minister Keating, who is so certain about Australia’s future as a self-assertive nation state, was once equally certain, when he was Treasurer, about its future as an economic miracle. The benefits of retaining an off-shore, cost-free head of state who is out of politics and sets a limit to ambition have begun to sink in, helped by the stridency of the abolitionists, whose personal aspirations are all too apparent.

Even if Australia were to go republican, however, the monarchy here, though it would be badly damaged, would probably survive. It will probably survive even if the Prince and Princess of Wales divorce, although if the explosion propels young William early to a tottering throne he won’t thank his parents for giving him a broken home as a prelude. What might or might not happen to the monarchy, however, is not the main reason why these two should renew their alliance. The main reason — and this comes from conviction, not from mere preference — is that they have let the press define for them what a marriage is, and in so doing have made a mistake with potentially ruinous consequences for everybody.

The press is not qualified to keep the conscience of the married. At almost every level, with the occasional exception of a proprietor miraculously immune, its practitioners have done everything except stay married. They know more about divorce and remarriage than they know about marriage. For the Prince and Princess of Wales the journalists promoted an ideal marriage, and then detected a bad marriage, and finally condemned a sham marriage, but in all three cases it was a fantasy, because all they had ever been talking about was a difficult marriage, and all marriages are difficult. Every marriage has something wrong with it. Marriage has something wrong with it. What it has wrong with it is people. The more individual they are, the less they are designed to live together. If two people were meant to live together easily they would have half a personality each. Mr and Mrs Rupert Murdoch might be an ideal couple — he bringing out the News of the World, she running the beautiful house in which it is never read — but scarcely any other couple is. A lasting marriage isn’t dreamland: it is reality.

As things are now, the Princess, though brave as a lioness, is being dragged down. The Prince should overrule any advice from his camp which suggests that he can survive her fall uninjured. He will be dragged down next. They have already had sufficient experience of living apart. The time has come for them to live apart together, drawing what profit they can from everything they have so harshly found out. With their private life restored, they might each love other people. It would be no great innovation. Most people who love once love again, and have even been known to fall for the person they once married, after realizing that the person they let go was in a trap, and the trap was in themselves. We might delude ourselves that what happens to the beleaguered couple in private will still be our concern, but really it will be unknowable, as marriage, in its essence, always is. But there will be an important practical result.

They will be back in business, and for that they both have excellent qualifications, both mutually and as a complement. We have been encouraged to forget, in the hubbub, that the Prince of Wales is a man out of the common run, a fact he would have had less trouble proving had he been born a commoner. (Indeed if you think that the chief role of the royal family is to exemplify an ordinary life, his excess of ability has always threatened to unbalance the whole institution.) What has been less noticed about the Princess, largely because of her startling glamour, is that she has a good mind too. It is not an academic mind (journalists who read three books a year have always been swift to point that out) but it is an original one, and she has learned to speak it with increasing precision, even as the hyenas close in.

On the subject of the children they are more in agreement than they might suppose. One of the first things I heard him say was how determined he was, when some potentate gave him a miniature electric-powered sports car for the boys to ride in, that the boys would never get to see it. When the Princess flies economy class with the boys now, she is pursuing the same idea. They might have different opinions about how to realize it, but the aim is the same. They both want the children to know what reality is, and there she can help him. Neither of his parents was born as heir to the throne: he has had to find too much out for himself. She knows all there is to know about being a child from an unreal background.

In that last dubious advantage lies the key to those qualities she has more of than he does. The reaction she gets in the hospitals and the hospices is no mere contrivance. The wounded and the lonely spot her immediately as one of them. And even if there were an element of the actress, how bad would that be? Female journalists whose every sentence is an imposture are fond of belittling her as histrionic, but where do they suppose the histrionics come from? If she plays a part, she plays it from a deep impulse, and from the same impulse comes an authentic gift for making the weak feel that they have a representative. No wonder the Queen seems desperate at the thought of losing her.

For all I know, the Princess is a hell of a handful close to. But she is a man’s woman if I ever saw one. Falling for her is a lot easier than falling off a log. The problem is what to do about her next. Having married her, the Prince was obliged to watch her grow and change, while she had to cope with all the ways in which he was determined not to alter. I imagine his life-lines entangled her like a net. Their life together would have been difficult anyway. But publicity made it impossible. It was just too good a story.

The only way out of the story is to get back to reality. With private life regained, their public life might be managed better. It will still be to some extent a PR operation, but at least the publicity will be for something that can thrive in the limelight, as no marriage ever has, or ever can. They will have a battle on their hands, but even if they are living apart, if they are living apart together they are well equipped to fight. All he needs to accept is that he is the Hurricane and she is the Spitfire. In the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane was the worthy gun-platform that could take the punishment and the Spitfire was the bobby-dazzler that could turn inside the German fighters and demoralize their pilots with its sheer speed. The Spitfire broke them up and the Hurricane knocked them down. In the flypast afterwards, the Spitfire flew first and got most of the publicity. But it took both of them to win. There is a hint there about protocol. The Prince might consider letting her walk in front to mop up the photo flash, while he takes the credit for his wisdom. A change in procedure is all it will be.

But the institution will have been preserved. And let us be in no doubt about what institution that is. It isn’t just the monarchy, which might very well be coming to the end of its time, although I hope not at the hands of those who see a role for themselves in its replacement. It is private life, the touchstone of civilization, our only guarantee against the mob — which is us too, but at our worst.

(Spectator, 20 November, 1993)