Who can fail to feel some base satisfaction or schadenfreude when a star is ‘outed’ for nefarious activity and behavior? Think, Tiger Woods as prime example! Or Ryan Giggs of Manchester United! Or for that matter Paris Hilton – on many – too many – occasions!
Yet, as the ongoing News Corp/News of the World saga demonstrates there are dangers when media is allowed to investigate without restraint the private lives of these celebs. And in this case the Murdoch Empire has become the ‘Celeb’ and the scandal concerns this media giant.
The techniques of illegal hacking of voicemails/messages and buying stories came to light after the Murdoch Empire targeted politicians, soldiers killed in Afghanistan, victims of the 7/7 2005 terrorist attacks in London, and at least one murdered schoolgirl. The techniques used were initiated and perfected with respect to traditional celebrities. They were extended to a variety of individuals and situations and now those who targeted celebs have become both the Celebs and the scandal.
Some of the celebrities whose phones were hacked were part of a central preoccupation of the Murdoch media – celebrities including most likely Princess Diana, her personal assistant and a lawyer connected to her.
But the range of celebrities who were followed not by old-fashioned private investigative tactics but allegedly illegal techniques of scrutiny stretched across the entire spectrum of celebrities from Sienna Miller to Hugh Grant. And this leaves aside undercover sting operations such as the one that implicated Sarah Ferguson in the well-known cash for royal access scandal.
To be sure, some of these behind these operations were caught and punished as witnessed by the jailing of the Murdoch’s royal editor and (well-paid) private investigator in 2006. But these actions failed to retrain the Murdoch media and prevent the escalation of illegal activities. The Murdoch papers were allowed to argue that the culprits were rogues disconnected from the overall Murdoch media culture.
And confirming the impression that sensationalism sells, the public continued to favor the results of this sort of investigation in connection to private wrongs over other sorts of scandal – such as those involving deficiencies in governance.
Instead of being ring-fenced, the success that the Murdoch papers and other media had in naming and shaming celebrities wetted the appetite of the Murdoch media for other targets – targets that were looked upon with far greater public sympathy.
Celebrities with some justification are often viewed as being exceptional. With the (now happily defunct) News of the World this unique quality seems to have justified an open season on a wide range of individuals and permitted the Murdoch media to target these people in the news. These nefarious actions led to a serious drop of ethical standards that eventually swallowed the Murdoch media itself. The hunter became the hunted.