I was at the BBC on Wednesday afternoon when the news broke that Huw Edwards was the person everyone has been speculating about. I could tell something was afoot, as the newsroom started rushing around, in anticipation of some incoming storm. Reporters immediately stationed themselves outside the building, eliciting the views of anyone passing by. One of the security guards shared his opinion with me: “Lovely man. So nice to us. Such a shame.” Others were less sympathetic.
I was there to talk about cluster bombs on The Moral Maze. Are there any moral limits on the sort of weapons one can use in a just war? Cluster bombs leave unexploded bomblets in the ground for years to come, with curious children often the casualties.
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But most people at the BBC weren’t interested in this. A popular newsreader was alleged to have had dealings with at least one young person, the nature of which was still unclear. But the country — in its media and social media guise — was transfixed. The police have said they do not think any crime has been committed. The newsreader lies in a hospital bed, suffering severe distress. I wonder what the man from Kyiv thought about our moral priorities?
Perhaps this is an unfair juxtaposition. The Sun’s exposé of Huw Edwards could be seen as a legitimate expression of public-interest journalism. If the BBC’s highest paid newsreader had been acting inappropriately with people young enough to be his grandchildren, abusing his celebrity, isn’t this the sort of thing tabloid journalism exists to bring to light?
But there is another player in all of this who has come out of the last few days very badly indeed: the great British public. Notwithstanding the question of The Sun’s behaviour, we get the journalism we deserve. And there is nothing the British public enjoys more than seeing the mighty fall, especially when caught with their trousers down.
Social media is often blamed for amplifying our vices — and it does — but it also reflects back to us something of the underlying reality. We enjoy the downfall of others. We take a certain secret or not-so-secret pleasure in their suffering, dressing up our gossipy schadenfreude as moral concern. For too many of us, morality has become a pretext for cruelty. Something we relish, revelling in the prurient finger-pointing, pretending we’re part of some kind of high-minded moral crusade to root out hypocrisy. With a public like this, how can we expect the media to do anything other than spend its time sniffing about after other people’s sins?
And which of us could withstand this sort of scrutiny? If our lives — our private lives — were written up as unsympathetically as possible, by people clever with words, intent on dialling up to the max all that we have got wrong, I suspect even the saintliest among us would look like a wrong-un. If you don’t think, “there but for the grace of God go I”, you don’t understand the terrifying power of the press.
But defend someone who has been disgraced, and the mob may turn on you too. You are an apologist for grooming or racism or whatever. “Look, he sits with sinners and tax collectors”, they said of Jesus, implying he was one too. So, best keep your head down. Or throw more stones at the guilty, thus to direct attention away from you.
For who would take on the mob? Politicians need their votes, so are reluctant to stand against a social media cascade of mimetic hatred. Large organisations fear those weasel words of the PR advisor: “reputational risk”. And most individuals cower, powerless.
While all this poisonous dance is being played out, a man is hiding under the covers of his hospital bed, clearly unwell, surely terrified. He may well have done wrong. And of course, people do need to be held to account for this. But, as a man of faith, the hard work will be done in silence, as he confronts his maker. We used to believe that God was our judge. A God who knew all the secrets of our hearts. A God who loved us nonetheless. We don’t believe in this God anymore. We believe in Rupert Murdoch. And it’s not been a happy swap.