Paul McMullan’s testimony to the Leveson inquiry last week was unique, bizarre, tragic and at times hilarious. The former News of the World journalist made no attempt to save his own skin, instead unleashing an explosive defence of invasive press tactics, and perhaps the most graphic account ever of the inner world of the tabloids. He said harassing celebrities was great fun. He described ex-colleagues as “arch-criminals”. He condemned the idea of privacy as a con that protects only hypocrites and “bad” people – to wit, “privacy is for paedos”.
His statement flits between defence of his work as a search for “the truth”, and an inane account of how he was sent to France to “track down the woman who took John Major’s virginity”. He claims he worked to “catch out the people who lie to us and rule over us”, only to defend framing fallen starlet Jennifer Elliot as a prostitute and driving her to suicide on the basis that the public kept on buying the paper (though he did, apparently, “regret it”). He claims he “simply mirrored back what people wanted to read”; the public has only itself to blame for the fact that he brought in more money impersonating a rentboy to honey-trap a Catholic priest than he did reporting on the Iraq war.
McMullan at times seems driven by the conviction that ‘bad’ things lurked behind every cloak of privacy, even taking on the mad fervour of a conspiracy theorist, convinced that everything private must be ‘bad’. He’s wrong, of course – plenty of acts are entirely normal and acceptable, but still embarrassing when splashed across the national press, sex being only the most obvious example. His work boils down to a furious drive to embarrass public figures, a pursuit ultimately more concerned with the feelings of the readers, and their insatiable appetite for moralising judgement than the facts of the story.
He refers again and again to the ‘public interest’, a bland term long since drained of what little meaning it ever had, stretched to encompass ever larger slices of private life. It is too vague to separate genuinely worthwhile exposes from the glorified stalkers who feed the red-tops, but there is a real difference. The humiliation dished out by McMullan and his ilk is has no purpose beyond the humiliation itself; it satisfies the reader’s desire to see the greatest at their worst, and goes no further.
We need a new, clear distinction between what does and does not deserve to be included in private life. If an event, however sordid, does not affect a large number of people in a clear, tangible way then it simply doesn’t deserve to go to press. But people do care about such sordid happenings, or so the counterargument runs. To this I propose a test. If an event will affect the public only if it is reported, if it becomes a public interest only within the context of its own scandalous exposure, then it does not merit invasion of privacy. Crime, fraud and abuse of power clearly and demonstrably damage people’s lives whether they become public knowledge or not, whereas the grimy details of some film star’s liaison with a Thai hooker do not touch our lives in any way outside of their coverage in the media. A clearer, stronger legal defence of the right to privacy would do far more to stop invasive journalism than ranting about ethical failings or the inability of the press to regulate itself.
Paul McMullan may well be the only individual involved in the hacking scandal to actually give us a glimpse of the blazing emotional cocktail that drives the tabloids. His tales of stake-outs, car chases and trading celebrities’ phone numbers with colleagues (Sylvester Stallone’s mother would get you David Beckham, apparently) are lit up with a Lord of the Flies-esque mix of boyish sadism and unwavering self-righteousness. But when stripped of the dramatic headlines and laid out in cold prose, his crusade to shame seems sad, driven by a petty mix of greed and spite than by the ‘dark arts’ of some international media conspiracy. Ironically, the only defence of the cruel tabloid invasiveness to emerge since this summer may have done the most to condemn it.