The News of the World’s “fake sheikh”, investigative journalist Mazher Mahmood, told the Leveson Inquiry earlier this week that he risks his life on a daily basis and that his work has led to over 260 successful criminal prosecutions. On the same day, the sacked Neville Thurbeck told the inquiry that the paper had decided to expose David Beckham’s affair because it was “in the public interest”.
“The Beckhams had been using their marriage to endorse products,” Thurbeck said. “They were making millions of pounds on the back of that wholesome image and we thought it very important at the time to expose that.”
And the law is largely on his side. When legal disputes following such exposés arise, the courts often come down in favour of the paper, saying that the celebrity is selling a sham image. It’s “in the public interest” that they be unmasked.
But come on, can the press really claim to be acting as a public moral watchdog by exposing a footballer’s infidelities or a starlet’s plastic surgery? We don’t expect our celebrities to be beacons of truth and morality – in fact, we’re rather sickened when they are. Celebrities, of the kind which court the media, are merely characters to us and their downfall is as an integral part of the brand they’re selling.
Rags and redtops are definitely serving a certain kind of “public interest”. Whether we like it or not, there is a vast mass of people for whom the sleaze and scandals of B list celebs is of more interest than government corruption – because it’s news as entertainment. Gossip mags far out-sell broadsheet newspapers in this country, and the Daily Mail website with its celeb “sidebar of shame” as some have called it, gets something like 4.5 million visitors a day.
It has been said – and I’d agree – that the celebrities which feature in tabloids and gossip rags have entered into a Faustian pact with the press. So too, in a way, have the readers. We cannot pay for and devour these salacious stories and then expect journalists to come up with any better reason for producing them. Currently “in the public interest” seems to mean little more than pandering to the public’s purses. Since paparazzi regulation seems impossible and the law already covers the crimes committed by phone-hacking journalists, perhaps the most fundamental thing which could come out of the Leveson Inquiry would be a new definition of “public interest”.
We need, too, to separate the actions and aims of celebrity journalists from true investigative reporters for whom, in the words of Mahmood, the end justifies the means. This would also affect the way we remember the Leveson Inquiry, which at times has felt more like a red carpet than a public investigation.
Legally, yes, the hacking and harassment of these celebrities is a crime and should be punished. But it is not a crime that should be put in the same category as the violation of the privacy of anonymous victims such as Milly Dowler’s parents and even the widows of dead soldiers.
What do you think? Are celebrities and readers engaged in a Faustian pact with the tabloid press?