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.