From the Gutter

Glen Newey

In every journalist, Marguerite Duras said, lies a moralist, and one knows what she meant. Moralism is the one trusty pleasure left to those whose knowledge is marred by their impotence. Modern societies and the internet create plenty of both, and so, predictably, tartuffery is the order of the day. Even bloggers – virtual hacks of no great moral pretensions – can sometimes get sucked in. It can be a challenge, faced with its seductions, to keep one’s feet planted firmly on the moral low ground.

Duras might have found Paul McMullan a testing case for her dictum. The ex-News of the Screws journo’s fess-all testimony to the Leveson Inquiry yesterday offered moral acrophobics all the treats of moralism without the risk of the high wire. As an incidental pleasure, the telly coverage gives viewers cutaway shots of QCs cross-examining the witnesses and, on occasion, Lord Leveson himself. Leveson interjects now and then with faintly Cocklecarrotish questions, such as whether some Daily Star stories mentioned in Richard Peppiatt’s evidence – Susan Boyle to be played in Hollywood blockbuster by Angelina Jolie, the world’s first Muslims-only public toilets, etc – are real. As C.E.M. Joad would have said, it all depends what you mean by ‘real’.

With McMullan, the inquiry personnel wear an expression, somewhere between bafflement and heartfelt moral shock, of prefects faced with a third-former who cheerfully admits to having nicked a Curly Wurly from the tuck shop, and had fun doing it. Cross-examining counsel, David Barr, floppy-fringed, bespectacled and dweebish, is a perfect foil to McMullan, who looks as if he has just emerged fully clothed from a pan of chip fat. Like his fellow-hack Peppiatt, McMullan gives every appearance of basking in his moment in the sun. He dwells fondly on the notorious NOTW-inspired story – a true one, too good for the Star to have made up – that set a Portsmouth anti-paedophile lynch mob after a paediatrician.

More Bufton-Tuftonish interjections from Leveson. Was Mr McMullan really saying he was ‘slightly proud’ of that? Well, no, in the sense of ‘yes’. After all, the name of the game is impact – surely judges can relate to that? Certainly British academics can, in these days of the REF and its daft ‘impact assessment’. Those of us who sweat blood writing for a readership of three in the Tallahassee Journal of Ontology and a fee of the square root of zilch can only dream of having our work misunderstood by a bunch of hillbillies bent on murder.

That said, the gutter’s not what it was. In the good old days you could rip off your sources. You could do real-life car chases and get paid good money for it – at least till Diana topped it. Tailgating celebrities is a good laugh, but only if they play the game and try to keep their distance. You ring David Beckham’s phone, innocently hoping to hack into his voicemail and – would you Adam and Eve it? – Becks actually picks up. Now people are getting all tetchy about privacy. What’s that all about? Privacy used to be for irons in the closet, but now that’s OK. Now it’s only good for paedos. They’re obviously fair game. Them and hypocrites – can’t stand them. But then, what’s so bad about a two-faced kiddie-fiddler, if it comes to that? Just think where the Catholic Church would be without them. That’s the trouble with acting lowlier than thou – you go low, and there’s always someone happy to go lower.


  • 30 November 2011 at 12:59pm
    Nicolas Buchele says:
    No, you can't win. That really is where they draw the line. Their frame of reference may be narrow, but it's rock-bottom-solid. Between on one end of the scale Brad Pitt and on the other a paedo, a whole delicately shaded universe unfolds, with 'Charlotte Church's dad' somewhere in the plump middle. The real miracle of human ingenuity is that barbarism is in its way as complex, contradictory and sturdy a construct as the highest civilisation.

  • 30 November 2011 at 9:15pm
    JWA says:
    Paul McMullan testimony is I think the most entertaining television I've seen this years - he seemed to be a compulsive truth-teller (or a version of it) - vacillating between self-loathing and defiance, wincing as he created elaborate defences for pactices he admitted seconds earlier were vile. 'Even I found that distasteful... and I wrote it'. I remember the BBC presenter saying 'you seem to be a tortured soul' when he appeared on Newsnight, I also enjoyed Will Self describing as having a 'rat-like feral persona that perfectly embodies the gutter press' But mainly I'm reminded of Gordon Burn's fun novel "Fullalove". But anyway - thank you for this post I enjoyed it. Now I just need to find a paediatrician...

  • 3 December 2011 at 7:25pm
    ejh says:
    There was not, in fact, a Portsmouth lynch mob. A paediatrican's house was graffitied in what was a thoroughly unpleasant incident. But there was not a mob of any kind, and the incident took place not in Portsmouth but in Newport, in Wales.