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The Days When Vulgarity Was King

A sentence that I read recently in The Guardian newspaper about the News of the World telephone tapping scandal reminded me of my days as a doctor in the prison:

News International has also written to nine other alleged victims of News of the World phone hacking saying it was prepared to pay compensation if they obtained evidence from Scotland Yard to support their claims.

I used to ask prisoners on remand whether they were "going" guilty or not guilty at their forthcoming trials, to which they would reply, almost invariably, "It depends".

"On what?" I would continue.

"On what my brief says".

In other words, it was never a question of whether or not they had done what they were accused of having done. So (if the report is accurate) it seems to be with News International. It is not for them a question of whether they did or did not tap an alleged victim's telephone; it is rather a question of whether the alleged victim can prove it, not to the satisfaction of News International itself, but to that of the police.

Perhaps it is futile to lament the wickedness of the world, or the lack of remorse for wrongdoing by a giant organisation. But there is an aspect of the whole affair that seems to me to have been overlooked, or insufficiently emphasised, perhaps because it is more disturbing in the last analysis that the wrongdoing itself.

Presumably the News of the World's motive in behaving as it did was to sell newspapers and to steal a march on its rivals. In doing so, therefore, it had to form a view of the kind of stories and information that would appeal to its potential audience and sell extra copies. And what it thought would interest its potential readers is vulgar and salacious tittle-tattle about celebrities, whose very celebrity itself was often a manifestation of a debased culture, whose main feature is the willing, indeed highly determined, suspension of intelligence.

It is true that the circulation of the News of the World is at its lowest for half a century, although it still has the highest circulation of any Sunday newspaper. This might be a sign that people are losing interest in the kind of news that it purveys, but I suspect that this is not the explanation of its loss of circulation. If you go into any British newsagent, you will see evidence that celebrity gossip forms a very large part of the mental diet of much of the British population. Internet servers provide headlines for their customers, and I assume that that they do so on an estimate of what will attract and interest them. Here are two typical headlines from my server:

Slimmed down star stuns viewers with her flexibility on TV show.

Katy Perry [it is assumed that everyone knows who she is] shapeshifts for new ad campaign.

Indeed, it takes something of an effort in Britain to avoid this drivel, for it has invaded, and in some cases almost taken over, our supposedly more serious newspapers. In rather more cultivated times, this cynically-produced drivel might have been designated prolefeed, but now in Britain intelligent and educated people demonstrate their sympathy for the unintelligent and uneducated by sharing their tastes. There is no form of empathy that appears more sincere than imitation.

Mr Cameron's appointment of Mr Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, to an important position in his administration was, in effect, an endorsement of the culture of vulgarity and stupidity for which this country and its people are universally and, alas, rightly now reviled. One can only assume that, by appointing him, Mr Cameron was trying to demonstrate not his democratic, but his demotic, virtue (although, increasingly in Britain, there is no distinction between the two). And this is so irrespective of Mr Coulson's personal qualities, good or bad, or his ability to do the job.

In the event, the appointment bore the two unmistakable hallmarks of the modern British political class (which, it must be remembered, did not emerge by spontaneous generation from a demographic void): a complete lack of scruple and the most evident incompetence.

Of course, in this imperfect world a certain lack of scruple, or willingness to compromise, is essential in political, and perhaps in daily, life; but when it goes too far, and is allied moreover to obvious incompetence, it becomes disastrous. By the time he was appointed, Mr Coulson had been head of an organisation that had indulged in the most unsavoury and illegal conduct, for which two people had already gone to prison. Although he had denied any personal wrongdoing, he had resigned his position. It was therefore the grossest error of judgment - political incompetence - to appoint such a man to any position in government whatever, an error that could have arisen only from a serious defect of character in the person appointing: and this, even if the appointee had been the editor of the Times Literary Supplement rather than the News of the World.

In Britain we have completely lost sight of the proper place of vulgarity in the moral and cultural economy. We have made it king when it should be court jester. It is funny and valuable only when it mocks pretensions to gentility and recalls cultivated people to the limitations of their earthbound condition. Without a contrast with something else, something that is not itself vulgar, it becomes merely unpleasant, crude and stupid. In these circumstances it exerts a corrosive effect on minds and manners because, while it takes no effort at all to be vulgar and unrefined where vulgarity and lack of refinement are almost universal, it takes effort to be urbane and refined.

Perhaps some will deny my characterisation of contemporary Britain. To those people I do not know what to say. It is like trying to explain colour to the colour-blind or music to the tone deaf. I can only adapt a version of Pablo Neruda's invitation in his poem on the Spanish Civil War:

Come and see the vulgarity running through the streets!
Come and see the vulgarity running through the streets!
Come and see the vulgarity running through the streets!

 First published in Social Affairs Unit.

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