Only the DJs’ own ghastly public humiliation will now satisfy the audience that laughed when first it heard the hoax tape.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
The DJs who pranked Jacintha Saldanha, and whose actions seem at the very least to have contributed to her apparent suicide, are now themselves being hunted with the kind of self-righteous disgust and hysteria in which they once traded at a profit. Only their own ghastly public humiliation will now satisfy the audience that laughed when first it heard the hoax tape.
What’s constant in this story is the assumption that we, the public, deserve to see others humiliated. Pity and scorn, it seems, are appetites which everyone has a right to gratify. If it’s not royalty, let it be nurses. If the nurse is out of bounds, then let’s scorn and loathe the media. If we’re Guardian writers, let’s detest the Daily Mail.
It’s fashionable to point at Twitter as the forum par excellence for this carnival of hate, but it’s a symptom as much as it’s a problem in itself. The real causes lie in the whole mass media ecology, newspapers and television as much as anything on the internet.
Among journalists, there has been a backwash of sympathy towards the DJs because they could not possibly have foreseen the consequence of their thoughtless acts. To some extent this is professional solidarity but there is also an element of human sympathy. All of us, whatever our professions, have taken risks that could have ended catastrophically. Any parent will remember moments of inattention when a small child might have died or been injured. No one would truly have been to blame, but it would anyway be impossible to forgive yourself. But professional solidarity won’t do here. There are some risks which shouldn’t be taken at all. We don’t feel pity for a drunk driver who had got away with it 900 times before ploughing into the queue at a bus stop.
Another and more defensible reaction is that it was wrong because the victims were civilians. The media does tend to operate with a code like the Krays: it’s all right to attack you if you’re in the game, or “a public figure” as we say. Otherwise it’s out of order. Cartoonist Steve Bell, for example, would never draw civilians the way he draws politicians.
This is certainly what I feel myself, but it’s a feeling that’s difficult to justify with reasoned argument. The distinction between public figures and private ones is difficult to draw consistently or clearly. Even if someone is for a moment a public figure, attacks on them will wound those who love them in private life: should their tears be acceptable collateral damage? I once relished mocking in a front-page sketch a man who had brought a court action against female priests. A couple of hundred thousand people would have read it, and, I hope, laughed out loud. He rang me up afterwards. Why had I made his mother cry? The answer “Because I’m so clever and you’re an idiot” didn’t seem entirely adequate. It wasn’t her fault, after all.
This isn’t, of course, just a problem for journalists. I wrote what I did because I knew people would laugh. In this context, all laughter is mocking, and all of it is an indication of superiority over the victim. And that is the deeper explanation for media mobs. We are not more cruel than our bear-baiting ancestors, who watched public executions for public entertainment. But we are more frightened and more insecure. Advertising tells us nothing could be more important than our desires: economic reality tells us nothing could be less important. We fear and loathe the audience that consumes celebrity, what William Gibson called “a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed”.
But we become the thing we fear. In a fortnight the nurse and the DJs will all be forgotten, but the show will run and run.
• This article will be opened to comments on Monday morning
• This article was amended on Monday 10 December 2012. The phrase “whose actions seem at the very least to have contributed to her suicide” was changed to “whose actions seem at the very least to have contributed to her apparent suicide”, as an inquest has not yet established whether or not Jacintha Saldanha killed herself.
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