So where do we go from here? How do we escape from this corner that we have apparently painted ourselves into? There’s too much at stake for us all to finally cede defeat to the celebrities and fall in line with whatever they want. Isn’t there?
To consolidate the position then:
From one side, we have indiscreet celebrities whose extramarital affairs have tipped the balance of legal and popular opinion in favour of privacy over press freedom. This has resulted in a 10,000% spike in the cost of potential penalties for stepping over the line, and has made at least two cases of alleged serious criminal conduct literally illegal to report.
From another side, we have a Royal Charter which is trying to strong-arm the entire UK media into state-regulation, or see them face financial catastrophe. And while the ship is at risk of sinking, certain elements of the press appear to be actively trying to kick holes in the hull.
From yet another side, a petulant reality TV host – a man with skin as tough as wet tissue; singularly unequipped to deal with the scrutiny that high office holds – is just weeks away from becoming the leader of the free world. Which means that this man, who has been promising to wage all-out war on the “biased” media, will likely be in a position to back 30 years of bluster up.
All of this is set against a backdrop of dwindling circulations and savage newsroom cuts. The current reality of the digital revolution is that it’s easier to make money online from clicks provoked by fake news and sensationalism than from sourced news, expensive investigations and sober journalism.
So if you’re looking for hope, we’re in pretty short supply.
There’s no getting around it: these are going to be some rough years for the press. We’re going to lose some important outlets – whether they get crushed by one big ruling, bleed out from a thousand little ones, or turn to dust because no-one’s prepared to pay for journalism anymore.
We’re going to see essential stories go unexamined – either through lack of resources, or through legislation preventing it.
And – despite what a lot of parochial anti-tabloid campaigns suggest – we won’t be seeing an end to the era of agenda-pushing billionaire media moguls when Rupert Murdoch finally carks it. Not when Silicon Valley billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar are already building up their own media empires. Not while Peter Thiel is storming around, tearing down the old ones.
What makes this all so tricky to swallow is that you can’t honestly say that the media haven’t helped to bring this all on themselves.
No-one forced Gawker to publish uncensored footage of Hulk Hogan’s dick in actual action. No-one insisted Gawker keep it online after they were served with a cease-and-desist letter. No-one cajoled Gawker writer A.J. Daulerio to make a paedo joke in his sworn deposition. These are all decisions that Gawker took freely. Despite the fact they were undoubtedly fuelled by a frontier spirit wanting to advance notions of freedom of expression, they are all decisions which actually make it harder to advocate for the protection of that freedom.
A vital debate is needed about the merit of injunctions and their place in a free press. The PJS case throws up some incredibly interesting and sympathetic points for discussion (although we can’t even begin to hint at what they are, for the threat of jail). Yet because the Daily Mail and the Sun have stoked up such outraged rhetoric around this particular case, the authorities clearly don’t feel that the British press can be trusted to have a reasoned and responsible discussion about it.
The Royal Family is every bit as deserving of scrutiny as our politicians, our public servants, and our other seats of power. However, as the press have repeatedly gone out of their way to invade the privacy they are actually entitled to (literally driving one of them to their deaths) then it becomes almost impossible to argue that the press deserves the fullest sympathy if and when the hammer finally falls.
And as for Donald Trump? Jesus Christ. Where the fuck do you even start?
Still, though hope may be in short supply, we’re not completely out.
Politicians and the more traditional members of the Establishment have got used to being scrutinised and gossiped about by the press. To them, this is the cost of doing business.
Celebrities, though. They’re not built from the same stuff. They can’t stand to be talked about negatively. A large part of their daily existence is reputation control and brand management, so even the smallest thing will get their hackles up.
Now that they are starting to take proper positions of power – both formal and informal – they are bringing this litigious reflex with them. This is what we have to watch out for.
More and more, the Powers That Be will try to expand the boundaries of ‘gossip’. They will attempt to convince you that certain stories are nothing more than idle chit-chat, prurient tittle-tattle, malicious slander. That’s how Trump can bat away a dozen sexual assault cases without blinking an eye. That’s how celebrities can injunct certain stories, only to then command multi-million pound paycheques for selling virtually the same information as an autobiography.
They insist it’s not our business. Then they make it their business.
But if 16 years of working this beat has taught us anything, it’s that – thankfully – humans are always predisposed to gossip. No matter how much the new establishment might try to take certain topics and stories off the table, there will always be someone willing to break ranks and talk about them. Hopefully there will always be someone around to publish them too.
To that end, we recommend that you subscribe to a newspaper if you don’t already. Pick up a magazine in the newsagent. Boost their circulations. Encourage their investigations. Help your publications of choice stay strong and help to line their war chests, because they’re going to be under attack for the next while.
For our part, we’ll keep doing what we can to keep these people on their toes. To weave in and out of whatever gaps we find to bring you the stories that come our way. To keep an ear out for backroom chat and eye out for behind-the-scenes behaviour.
Best of luck, everyone. We’ll see you in court.