So, The News of the World is gone. Yet if you think the high-pitched outrage that has been yelled at you over the last week is over, think again. Not only can we be sure of a constant drip of stories over the coming months, there is also too much political capital at stake for this to just be about getting The News of the World shut down.
For by breaching every code (written and unwritten) of decency, The News of the World have created the kind of public outrage that can be very dangerous if political opportunists are allowed to get their hands upon it – and this is exactly what is happening now. It is reminiscent of a phenomenon that can correctly be termed “Dunblane Syndrome.”
The Dunblane massacre in 1996 triggered spontaneous outrage and grief from the British public. The public mood in the months after the tragedy was emotionally sensitive to say the least, drifting between grief, anger and the desire that “something must be done” to prevent another massacre of innocent schoolchildren.
It was this emotionally taut mood that Tony Blair (at that point Leader of the Opposition) used to push forward his drastic anti-gun legislation. In his 1996 speech to the Labour Party conference, he famously responded to Tory criticisms that he was guilty of emotional blackmail with this sickeningly cheap shot,
“Well, if they had been in that gym, if they had talked to those parents, sitting on the tiny chairs where once their children sat, they would have been emotional too.”
The implication was clear; if you opposed Blair’s gun legislation (which would have done little to prevent Dunblane) then you didn’t care about dead children, or were too ignorant to understand – after all, you hadn’t seen the tiny chairs! The fact that Blair’s visit to Dunblane was a bipartisan visit with the Tories, and therefore they had talked to the parents and seen the tiny chairs, wasn’t allowed to get in the way of Blair’s “passionate” speech.
Say what you like about Blair, the fact is he knew how to get things done, and this was no different. The Tories didn’t want to be seen as people who didn’t care about dead children, and so shut up, and in 1997 the legislation was passed. Fourteen years later and the fact that gun crime has almost doubled, and that we have the highest burglary rates in Europe is still irrelevant – anyone who tries to revoke or change any of those laws will be tarred with not caring about Dunblane. Poor legislation described by the Home Affairs Select Committee at that time as “panic legislation” and that would never have been passed under normal circumstances was allowed through as wily, agenda-driven politicians tapped into an emotionally sensitive atmosphere.
Fast forward fourteen years and we have The News of the World scandal; a scandal that appears to be constantly evolving. It seems that the outcry from this will not be a short thing, but will be long lasting as more and more sordid details are drip fed to the public over the next few months. This opens the door for left-wing politicians and journalists with a grudge against Murdoch (“How dare he be successful and mildly right-wing!”) to steer this outrage to implement far reaching restrictions on press freedom that have nothing to do with the News of the World scandal.
The activities The News of the World engaged in are illegal, and therefore they should be investigated and prosecuted by the police. If there are questions of police corruption (as there were in the 2006 investigation) then it is that is a separate matter and should be looked at. As David Cameron correctly stated (over the hoots and jeers of the hyenas that pass for Labour MPs), now is the time for the rule of law to work and to take its course.
But that isn’t enough for the politicians and journalists looking to use this for their own political purposes. We are hearing the constant refrain that “there must be regulation.” Ignoring the fact that there are already press regulations, one should always be cautious when one hears cries for “regulation.” For “regulation” in and of itself is neither a good nor a bad thing; it is a question of what kind of regulations we are looking at, what specific regulations will be implemented, and what problems will it seek to solve that are the important questions.
Yet in this whipped up emotional frenzy, we will not see any of those questions asked nor answered. Instead, those with a long standing grudge against a successful media empire will call for the law to be bypassed with whatever haphazard, half-arsed, over the top legislation some slapdash committee of MP’s with no clue about journalism have come up with. Then, it will be forced through Parliament, with anyone who objects to it being put down as “not caring” about Milly Dowler, the Soham girls, Gordon Brown’s son and the 7/7 victims.
The big victim of all this will be press freedom – the most fragile of all freedoms, and the first to fall on the long road to tyranny. Dunblane Syndrome strikes again.