Mormon Media Observer: The British tabloid scandals are really about us

Published: Monday, Dec. 5 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

J.K. Rowling. Hugh Grant. Charlotte Church.

For the last few weeks, important celebrities like these have gone before a British tribunal to discuss the treatment they faced at the hands of the tabloid press in the U.K.

The inquiry follows the revelation last year that the now-defunct News of the World hacked into the phone of a murder victim causing remarkable sorrow to the grieving family.

As has been said in the AP, the inquiry shows the widespread practice of phone hacking was not the only terrible "skullduggery" exhibited by some parts of the British Press.

For example, Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, according to the Los Angeles Times, went before the inquiry and told of how she found a message from a tabloid reporter inserted into her child’s bag at school.

"I felt such a sense of invasion," Rowling reportedly said. "It's very difficult to say … how angry I felt that my 5-year-old daughter's school was no longer a place of, you know, complete security from journalists."

Grant talked of how he was forced to confront publicly the details of his personal mistakes in glum detail.

Church, a former popular child singer, talked of how the tabloids reported that she was pregnant before she could tell her parents, of how she was hounded mercilessly before she turned 16. She blamed her mother’s attempted suicide in part on the coverage of her family and the invasion of privacy that went with it.

If it's possible, worse still, Mark Lewis, a lawyer who has represented high-profile hacking victims, told the inquiry that he was subjected to harassment following him representing these victims, including videos taken of his 14-year-old daughter. “That was truly horrific,” he said in something of an understatement.

The inquiry, which will go on for several more months, reveals a press run amuck. It’s enough to make one ashamed to be part of the family of journalists. (There has been at least one interesting opposing view.)

But lost in all of this is something that needs saying.

Where are the readers in all this?

If we readers didn’t want news and information about celebrities, it’s hard to imagine that we would receive as much of it as we do.

Look at the front pages of popular news websites. While there is still much useful information on those sites, they sometimes seem dominated by stories of scandal and celebrity. This seems especially true of my mobile apps for prominent news sites.

To those who have paid attention, then, the underlying tone of the tabloids and their methods shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

Given that gossip and envy can be unhealthy, it shouldn’t surprise us that the means of getting that gossip and envy are shady and unpleasant. It seems fairly obvious given the stories they run, the kind of lengths they had to go to get the information.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not a perfect Internet consumer, though I am trying. I wish not to sound as though I am a scold.

What I am saying is this: These websites that celebrate celebrity culture and this gradual melding of news and entertainment on front Web pages follow market demand.

All of this celebrity stuff wouldn’t be popular if readers didn’t read and buyers didn’t buy.

Maybe it's time we stop buying. Maybe it's time we stop reading celebrity news to the extent we do and seek out the stuff with depth and substance more exclusively.

For me, the main lesson from the British tabloid scandals is not how bad the press is — though it can often be. It is as much about how we as a society have created a market for such tripe in the first place. Maybe readers, in the end, helped stake out J.K. Rowling’s house, figuratively going with the writers who spent weeks sitting in a car there looking for pictures.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.