All Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

March 16, 2009 at 10:44 pm (Uncategorized)

I read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam on Sunday (don’t be impressed, it’s verging on a novella), and the timing was quite good, as the Sunday papers here published racy photos of ex-One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, allegedly taken some thirty years ago by an ex-boyfriend (nice guy). 

Hanson is going for election again, a candidate in the forthcoming Queensland state election, and she’s a stubborn growth in our political pancreas that just won’t quit no matter how many times we operate. I don’t like her politics. I think hers is exactly the form of ignorance of which we have most to fear. She’s so certain of her xenophobia. So inflamed by her nationalism. So self-righteous and strident in her prejudice. Perhaps her views have cooled in the 12 years since she divided Australia and was given carte blanche by John Howard to basically do his dirty work for him, but I seriously doubt it. However, to be fair, I haven’t acquainted myself with her latest platform, and mentally dismissed her election bid as a folly. I keep falling into the small l liberal trap of thinking most Australians are more broad-minded than that, but her prominence last time, leading what should have been a really marginal party, belies my own armchair assessment of the state of the nation. In real terms, I don’t know how the majority of Australians feel.

Regardless, before the Hanson story broke, I was fascinated by the fallout occasioned by the publication of photos of a minister in drag in Amsterdam. I’ve enjoyed all the McEwans I’ve read, and I’ve read a few (actually, Litlove, he should probably have been on yesterday’s list… Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love and now this), but I did find that Amsterdam pushed the bounds of my credulity in ways I found ultimately unsatisfying. McEwan favours the multiple perspective, and is particularly expert at excavating our common failure to perceive events from any viewpoint but our own. His composer and his editor in chief, lifelong friends, suffer from a fatal failure to communicate and resolve their differences, differences which ostensibly only arise because of their attitude to publishing the photos. But would events really spiral out of control to the extent he suggests? I just didn’t buy it. The denouement seemed melodramatic and frankly absurd. They love McEwan on the Man Booker Prize panel; Amsterdam won and On Chesil Beach was shortlisted, I think. Both of them are very slim volumes, so presumably it’s not the weight of the tome that makes it weigh in so persuasively with the judges. But I have to admit I’m slightly surprised Amsterdam took it out. I don’t know what else was in contention that year – perhaps I should make it my business to find out – but I do know that as I reached the final page and put the book down, I felt vaguely miffed. Oh well, that’s all very neat, isn’t it? I thought. All a bit self-consciously sewn up, isn’t it? Come on! As if! Which is hardly what we – or at least I – want to feel having invested my Sunday morning in a book. I don’t like scoffing at an author’s conclusion. It tarnishes our relationship horribly. 

Which, speaking of tarnish, brings us back to the Hanson photos (in a roundabout kind of way). I have no relationship with her, but I do with the country’s press, and I think it’s utterly FOUL of them to run these pictures and intrude on her in this way. It’s just disgusting. It has NOTHING to do with her tilt at parliament, and it’s just exploitation for monetary gain all round. The despicable cretin who took the photos sold them, and the despicable cretins who bought the photos ran them. It is NOT in the public’s best interests to see these clearly private photos. It’s such an abuse – a flagrant, really base abuse – of the oft’ invoked and hysterically defended concept of freedom of the press. I believe in the freedom of the press, but I also believe that with that freedom comes responsibility, responsibility that is being shirked constantly these days. There’s a gleeful mockery of the very principles news agencies are so very quick to insist they uphold. The amount of gratuitous, parasitical invasions of privacy that pass for ‘news’ these days is staggering. The way they feast on images of carnage and despair – not because it’s necessary to tell the story, but because it sells, sells, sells – makes me so sick I have started avoiding even the broadsheet papers, which more and more resemble the worst of the tabloids. 

Publishing thirty year old private photos of a young woman – photos that were never intended to see the light of day – is not what protecting the freedom of the press is all  about. It’s just grubby and tawdry, and we the public do not always have a right to know. The press is the world’s watchdog, but who’s watching the press? Sometimes common decency really ought to prevail.


POSTSCRIPT: In a nice case of life imitating art, the publication of the Hanson photos has spectacularly backfired. They have been exposed as a hoax, and the editors who ran the pictures are scrambling for cover.


  1. Lilian Nattel said,

    The press ought to be the world’s watchdog, but for a long time it’s mainly been about fear and sensation to sell more. This is also true of other industries but they don’t make proclamations about freedom of the press or the public’s right to know. To know what? That she was in some nudie shots? What about the right to know what really goes on in financial backrooms, the real nature of hedge funds, the real motivations for war, the real consequences and many other more weighty things that have not been investigated until the too late date?

  2. doctordi said,

    Exactly, Lilian. That was actually another point I meant to make – that news, at least in Australia, is getting dumber and dumber and dumber. It’s not even about catering to the lowest common denominator anymore – this is much, much scarier, because it’s about actually CREATING the lowest common denominator. As infinitely more important things increasingly go unreported, more and more things like this become front page news.

    Okay, so we rely on the press to be the world’s watchdog, but what the hell are they watching? It’s like the guy in the security booth, feet up, doughnut in hand, watching some imbecilic game show while the thieves make off with the contents of the safe.

  3. Pete said,

    Very true about the dumbing down of the media. I guess the trouble is that investigative reporting of the type that Lilian mentions is pretty expensive and most of the public are just not that interested. Xenophobia is such a basic response and the majority of the media seems to be about feeding our basic natures.

  4. doctordi said,

    I think this is where the press occupies a pretty interesting position, and I know we’ve discussed aspects of this before, Pete. The media has a reportage imperative, it’s what drives the industry and justifies the appeal to protect the freedom of the press. The truth will out, that sort of thing. But decisions are made at every level about how much of the truth and what sort of truth to pursue, and the reasons for disseminating SOME versions of SOME truths are blatantly mercantile. Invoking the freedom of the press is all well and good, and I believe in that principle myself, but where’s the transparency about the fact that these are big, BIG businesses answerable to shareholders?

  5. litlove said,

    Lots of excellent points here. I’m about to read a book I gave my husband for his birthday called Flat Earth News (I think it’s by Nick Davies but don’t quote me on that) written by a professional journalist who decided to look into the misrepresentation of information in the press. My husband said it was very good, and very frightening. I think the media is out of control. And I think that the politician and the media are very similiar in that it is frightening how much people love having their base instincts played to. If someone in authority says you may do the bad stuff – hate foreigners, enjoy a prurient interest in someone else’s dodgy photos – well, the world must seem a better place. Anyway, I need to read this book first so I have some proper facts to hand. Oh and I also need to read more Ian McEwan. i did read Amsterdam and you know what, I can remember nothing at all about it, except that the ending was mad.

  6. doctordi said,

    I agree, Litlove, I think the press is out of control too. And part of me wants to read Flat Earth News immediately, whereas another part really genuinely dreads having my worst fears about all this confirmed. But I think the former part will win this tug-o-war, and thanks as ever for stymying my attempts to reduce the book pile by my bed…!

    Yes, the ending of Amsterdam was mad. Utterly mad. A bit stupid, actually. A word of warning before you load up on McEwans: several great readers I know can’t abide his work. I happen to like it, in some cases very much, but…

  7. davidrochester said,

    You can add me to the list of great readers who blow raspberries at McEwan, although I did think that Atonement was an extraordinary achievement. Everything else of his, however, has made me roll my eyes so violently that you can hear them rattling around in my head.

  8. doctordi said,

    Yeah, see that’s it – I started with Atonement, and I think it made me much more willing to go along with the others. I thoroughly enjoyed Atonement. I also thought Enduring Love was genuinely creepy. But I can see what rattles your eyeballs, I can.

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