He has the face of a man perpetually sniffing his own farts; and a perma-smirk that suggests he's intensely proud of the smell. It's this smug and sneering demeanour – along with a freakishly spherical head and complete lack of neck – that makes Have I Got News for You unwatchable. I've never liked Ian Hislop. He's bearable only when filtered through the pages of Private Eye. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found his evidence at the Leveson inquiry to be some of the most shrewd and thought-provoking yet.
The Sun's sanctum of smut and hate in Wapping, east London, was raided last weekend. Four current and former employees have been arrested in connection with an investigation into corrupt payments to police. Last week, John Prescott, Ashley Cole and Jude Law were among the 37 phone-hacking victims that received payouts from News International – settlements likely to total more than £1m.
It's been six months since David Cameron announced a two-part investigation into the roles of the press and the police in the phone-hacking scandal, but it's only in recent weeks that we have begun to see the fruits of both the Leveson inquiry and Operation Elveden (the Metropolitan Police's investigation into illegal payments to officers). Now seems as good a time as any to take stock.
Hearing the full extent of the abhorrent mistreatment of the Dowler family, along with some stirring and shocking celebrity evidence – including a career-best performance from Hugh Grant – sparked the Leveson inquiry into life in November, bringing the issue of media ethics to the fore.
It was Hislop, just this month, that cut through the subsequent discourse on statutory regulation of the press. “If the state regulates the press,” he said, “then the press no longer regulates the state.” Regarding the offences committed against the Dowlers, and others, he went on to raise perhaps the most astute point of the inquiry so far.
We do not need new rules and regulations to ensure many of the nefarious activities investigated at the Leveson inquiry never happen again. Phone hacking, contempt of court, police bribery: these things are already illegal.
It pains me to say it, but Hislop is right. On both counts.
“If the state regulates the press,” he said, “then the press no longer regulates the state.”
Now, more than ever, we need a free press. These are politically, economically and socially volatile times; it is vital that the fourth estate has the autonomy to serve public interest. With a free press, we must also accept a perpetuation of the penny press and tabloid tradition – gossip, scandal, tragedy, all that stuff. That doesn't, however, mean we have buy into it. A free press is an extension of freedom of speech – something I believe in without exception – so there will always be things published, just like there will always be things said, that we do not agree with.
I'm an atheist. It's not my place to tell a catholic, muslim, hindu or jew to give up their faith any more than it is to tell Russell Grant to knock astrology on the head. A free press, like freedom of speech, means people have as much right to discuss theology, or astrology, or witchcraft, or fairies, or pixies, as I do to treat these beliefs with the derision and loathing they deserve. This is a very good thing. It puts the onus on the reader, or the listener, to decide what is right and wrong.
Around 39% of people in the UK are atheist, making it one of the most areligious places on earth. Celebrity worship is this country's new religion. It has secular saints, believers make pilgrimages to their idol's homes and haunts, while the whole notion gives them sense of community and belonging. Millions of people are still devoted to a fabricated reality that promises them a better life, if they follow certain rules and give up certain freedoms, but never delivers it. It just has a different face. Pick up any tabloid newspaper or schlocky magazine and this becomes strikingly clear.
This is why, for me, the celebrity aspect is one of the most interesting features of the Leveson inquiry. The Dowler's were the victims of criminal activity. It was one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the press. All perpetrators – from the bottom up – will, hopefully, be brought to justice. It must never be allowed to happen again. Although not entirely disparate, press intrusion into the lives of public figures is far more nuanced.
These are politically, economically and socially volatile times; it is vital that the fourth estate has the autonomy to serve public interest
One testimony at the inquiry, in particular, struck a chord with me. At 21-years-old, Sienna Miller found herself chased by 10 men with cameras, through darkened streets at midnight. “Take away their cameras,” she said, “and you've got a pack of men chasing a woman.”
But, perhaps this young girl, alone, at night, surround by strange and hostile men, didn't have any makeup on. Perhaps she had a spot on her face. Perhaps she had a dress on that, when volleyed with flash-photography, revealed the shape of her breasts. Or, better still, a nipple. Maybe, from the right angle, if the photographer was arse-down in a gutter filled with piss and litter, he snapped a glimpse of her nickers. Maybe she wasn't wearing any. And maybe you bought the newspaper that printed that image. You paid money to see that picture.
You could argue that, as a public figure, Miller and her ilk court this attention. Their careers are built on it, you might say. And maybe that's true. But it does not make buying a paper to see its outcome any more ethical.
Celebrity worship is a personal choice. A free press means hacks can write about educationally subnormal clefts from Essex, dead-eyed Cowellian bottom feeders and amebic sacks of tits, teeth and STDs until we all gawp ourselves feral. And they will. Because it's profitable. It is up to us, as the consumer, to make a personal choice as to whether or not we condone and encourage it.
The Leveson inquiry has shattered the defence that an obsession with celebrity is harmless fun. The press are taking to increasingly vile and devious methods to satisfy people's lust for this shit. A “sustained campaign of surveillance, pursuit and harassment” was the term Mr Justice Vos used, regarding the 37 phone-hacking claims settled early this month. The investigation set out to “examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media.” Hopefully it will encourage a similar, personal examination of the media we allow into our lives.
Maybe, from the right angle, if the photographer was arse-down in a gutter filled with piss and litter, he snapped a glimpse of her nickers
Because celebrity veneration is perverse and toxic. I strongly believe that.
We have a government that has succeeded in persuading us it's those less fortunate than ourselves – the disabled, the elderly, the jobless – that are responsible for the mess we're currently in. The cost of energy, food, transport and council tax have all gone up, while our pay has remained the same. Rather than attack those in charge, and the millionaire-delinquents they bankroll, sleight of hand tells us it's those on £67.50 a week that are to blame.
Not everyone wants to come home from a hard day's work and spend the few hours they have to themselves wrestling with depressing and all-too-real political matters. I understand that. But I'm convinced an obsession with celebrity culture, and all its trappings, is not a viable alternative.
More than that, it is a deeply unhealthy and amoral practice. It encourages an adoration of the artificial. It tells us schadenfreude is entertainment. It craves depravity, by any means necessary. It speaks to the most reprehensible characteristics of human nature. And when the private lives of celebrities no longer arouse us, murdered schoolgirls take their place.