No turning back

The <em>News of the World</em> phone hacking scandal is growing by the minute, and threatens to chan

Each hour brings new revelations. More victims of phonehacking are being identified -- not just celebrities, or politicians, whose discomfort we have tolerated in the past, but real people, ordinary people like us, whose private moments of anxiety, grief and despair have been listened in on, and used to fuel tabloid tales.

Ever since allegations broke that an investigator working for the News of the World had hacked the phone of a missing teenager, and deleted messages, this story has taken on a new life. A Facebook group calling for a boycott of the News of the World has thousands of members. More significantly, advertisers, who have been bombarded with complaints from their customers, are deciding to withdraw their brands from the toxic environment of the News of the World -- for now at least. This is no longer a trifling matter of ethics only of interest to the London media bubble or the pitchfork-wielding Twitchunters; this is the only story in town, and it has angered more than just dripping-wet liberal Guardian readers. The shock and dismay reaches out much further.

You wouldn't know that from reading the Sun, though. They have covered the unfolding drama at their parent company News International, and their sister paper the News of the World, as if it were happening in another world -- a minor scuffle, but nothing to see here: please distract yourself with these other stories, rather than reading these few lines about our troubles. Apparently, it's business as usual.

Except it isn't. Newspaper readers aren't mugs; Sun and News of the World readers aren't mugs. It's wrong to think of them as a tide of dumb morons who don't understand the gravity of what's going on; a bunch of dribbling zombies who will happily skip down to the newsagents on Sunday and buy their favourite paper regardless of its alleged misdemeanours. It might be easier for us to see the world in those terms, but I tend to have a bit more faith in newspaper readers -- including News of the World readers -- than that.

The Sun might not be giving the phonehacking drama the attention that its newsworthiness deserves, but that doesn't matter: punters will be hearing the story on the radio, seeing it on television, reading about it on the net and seeing it covered elsewhere. The Sun's own website has carried discussions about the phonehacking fiasco today on its forums -- though some threads appear to have mysteriously disappeared.

Calls for a boycott of this Sunday's News of the World -- and wider calls for a boycott of News Corporation products -- are increasing. This is not just a few silly vexatious lefties on Twitter getting in a tizzy, as these things are usually depicted; this is much wider than that. Corporations who didn't worry about seeing their products placed in the country's most popular newspaper when the first phonehacking revelations came out are now thinking again. This is a big deal.

Perhaps News International hopes it can ride out the story; perhaps it genuinely doesn't understand the storm that has been created; or maybe a sacrificial figure is being prepared, someone to blame so the so-called mob can be satisfied and everything can carry on just as it always was.

So where we go from here? We don't trust the papers to police themselves. We don't trust the Press Complaints Commission to police the papers. We don't trust politicians to police the papers. Left with no-one to rely on but themselves, the campaigners have targeted advertisers -- and the efforts are paying off, in the short term at least. But what happens next will go some way to deciding how the media go about their business in this country.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage