One response to the phone hacking scandal has been to blame the readers of tabloid newspapers, rather than editors and owners, for the disgrace.
It is the public’s insatiable appetite for gossip and scandal that drove reporters to such depths, say those who want to channel the anger away from politicians and proprietors.
Many of those targeted by the hackers are famous. And there’s no denying that celebrities, and celebrity scandals in particular, sell newspapers and magazines. But why are so many people interested in the lives, loves, treacheries and tragedies of people they’ve never met?
The answer is in the way that capitalism robs most of us of our individuality, and subordinates our creativity to the endless search for profit. It also lies in the way a tiny minority of talented or lucky people are held up as examples for us to revere or reject.
For most people, most of the time, work dominates. While there, we are told what to do, and how and when to do it.
In the world of work everything that makes us unique is regarded as an obstacle to getting the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
So call centre operatives are instructed not to get “too friendly” with clients because they are wasting valuable time. Supermarket cashiers are monitored to ensure they are scanning not chatting.
Teachers are subject to an endless drive towards uniformity in their work and pressed to meet targets.
No wonder we invest so much of our “leisure time” and money in things that help us escape, such as holidays and hobbies. But even when we are not at work, we find that our lives are still regulated by routines built around our jobs and that are never really free.
Some people, however, seem to be exempt from this remorseless logic—celebrities. Theirs is a world of endless leisure, consumption and reproduction.
The people who constitute this tiny layer are far from anonymous. Being an individual and standing out from the crowd does not hinder their work.
In fact, having a personality makes them count—it makes them a sellable commodity. Newspapers can make profits from building up celebrities, and then destroying them later.
Footballers, pop stars, actors and the like are richly rewarded for highly individual traits that make them “unique”. Because celebrity privileges are said to derive from their personalities, what they do in their private lives is deemed interesting.
Stories that illustrate their morals and changing emotional states are windows into their lives and help explain the rise and fall of their careers.
What some celebrities describe as “intolerable intrusions” into their private lives is, in fact, the oxygen that keeps the status of celebrities alive.
Without the paparazzi photographer’s long lenses and the kiss and tell journalist’s chequebook there could be no celebrity culture.
Some newspaper readers are attracted to stories about famous people—in part, because stars enjoy the kind of recognition and attention they will never receive. Pop and screen idols’ individuality is celebrated while the system tries to hollow ours out.
What is normally private is suddenly on show to millions, and all sorts of moral judgements can be explored in ways that seem far more “real” than most dramas.
And, in some ways, the characters at the centre of this are more like us, more human.
Whether a footballer or actor’s career nose-dives as a result of the revelation of their sexual misdemeanours will in part depend on the public’s response. We, as part of millions of others, are given the sense that their fate is somehow in our hands.
In that moment, the powerlessness that most of us experience daily can seem to have been abated.
Rather than simply responding to our demands as readers, owners and editors deliberately cultivate interest in these superstars. They know that gossip sells, but they also understand that the cult of celebrity performs a crucial function for the system.
It is a means of diverting our attention from the injustices that capitalism produces on a daily basis.
Despite all this, millions of working class people—including those who buy and read tabloid newspapers—reject this focus on the lives of celebrities. But capitalism offers people little choice, despite its rhetoric.
The hacking scandal has lifted the lid on the whole sordid tale of manipulation.
No wonder Rupert Murdoch and his ilk are suddenly in fear.