Horse meat has grabbed much of the media's attention recently, to the dismay and outrage of its innocent consumers. How on earth, everyone is asking, could such big, respectable companies allow horse meat into Tesco burgers? Letting Tesco (or the latest offender Iceland) get away with it is almost as bad as letting bailed-out banks dish out million-pound bonuses for Christmas. Isn't it?
Perhaps not. A scandal is one thing. Letting a scandal take over and monopolise the front-page news for weeks on end is quite another. Perhaps it's simply a trend to get one shocking, attention-grabbing story and stick with it until the next one comes along. If it sells, why not? Of course, it's only a short step from here to the increasingly radical means of obtaining such stories, as exemplified by the News Of The World phone hacking scandal. Now there's a story worthy of front page news... Another step and you're into the manufacturing-of-shocking-news-stories business.
No doubt you'll agree that tabloid press isn't the best. Perhaps I am not alone in becoming increasingly frustrated with silly scandals over horse meat commanding the media's devout attention. I mean.. Who cares if you ate horse meat? Meat is meat for God's sake; much of the world would kill for it! But nay.. We have high standards, not least in our principles. It's the principle that we were sold something other than what we paid for that enrages us I am told. On the other hand, we spend much of our lives buying into the promises of happiness - be it a house, a car or a holiday - yet fail to question whether or not the products did indeed deliver. No high standards there then.
In 2012 David Cameron commissioned an inquiry into the phone hacking scandal aimed at creating higher ethical standards in the press. Yet for all the ruckus surrounding the inquiry, very little has been said about its outcome. As the Economist put it - "the problem with asking a judge to investigate something is that he will eventually produce a report" - the conclusions of which were perceived by many in the media to be a breach of press freedoms, a cornerstone of western democracy. Without a free press, the argument goes, many of our other liberties are also curtailed.
Whether or not all of Leveson's remedies should be enacted is beyond my understanding. This is precisely the reason why the media should foster a public discussion about the issues the report raised and the responses to them. After all, it is the press' duty to inform the public about such crucial questions as the fate of the press itself - if this is not ‘the public interest’ then I don’t know what is. What is clear is our schizophrenic attitude towards cherished principles we seem to defend and fight for while simultaneously failing to use them intelligently. If by free press we mean the right to produce horse shit, and by transparency we mean the right to see only the information that’s easily digestible, why bother to begin with?
Any examination of the culture, practice and ethics of the press would do well to pay heed to the International Federation of Journalists’ belief that press freedom can only be expressed when (among other things) “the treatment of news and information as a commodity must not override or interfere with the duty of journalists to inform their audience”. The media should be doing more to encourage rather than stifle our sense of imagination and our ability to tackle complex problems. I am human after all, not horse.