by Gordon Lynch

One of the striking features of the current crisis engulfing News International is the prevalence of religious language. There is talk of News of the World, including all of its former staff, having been offered as a sacrifice, and speculation whether Rebekah Brooks, Chief Executive of News International, should have been offered up instead. The former editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler, spoke last week to his staff about the need to atone for the past. More widespread than this is the language of pollution; of shame, of people feeling sickened and appalled at abhorrent actions, of those implicated in those acts as being less than human.

When we see the language of pollution being used in the public domain, along with powerful moral sentiment driving public opinion, we know that we are witnessing the acting out of cultural sensibilities concerning the sacred and the profane.  By ‘sacred’ here I do not mean a simple synonym for ‘religion’ or some kind of universal mystical experience. Rather, the sacred refers to what people experience as realities that have an unquestionable moral claim over social life, and which are perpetually under threat of destruction or pollution by the evil of the profane. Although their content varies across different times and places, cultural structures of the sacred and profane have been used to mark the moral boundaries of human society for millennia.

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation

Far from being in a state of disenchanted rationality, modern society remains subject to powerful collective emotions and actions that different visions of the sacred and the profane continue to inspire. Indeed, it was precisely the profane nature of acts  associated with News of the World that has escalated this story from an investigative crusade by The Guardian newspaper, a small number of MPs and litigants into a global drama that now threatens the credibility of the world’s largest media corporation. Before last week, it had already been established that the News of the World engaged in phone-hacking to a much wider extent than first disclosed, and that the initial police investigation of this, and subsequent review, had been woefully inadequate. The Prime Minister’s former director of communications, Andy Coulson, resigned at the start of 2011 precisely because news stories about the practices of News of the World, when under his editorship, were steadily gaining momentum. This generated a moderate sense of scandal amongst those who were following the story, and who already felt cynicism towards the actions of News International and the UK Metropolitan Police.

The moment the story generated an entirely new level of public response was on July 4th when it was disclosed that people working for News of the World had hacked into the phone of a murdered school-girl, Milly Dowler. Dowler’s murder was fresh in the public memory; the trial of her killer had only concluded the previous week. Following close on the heels of this were revelations that the phones of the parents of other young murder victims, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, may have been hacked, as well as the phones of families of those killed by the in London and during military service.

Milly Dowler

The emotional power of these violations was immediately obvious. To understand quite why they were so powerful, we need to recognize that two of the dominant forms of the sacred in modern times have been the nation and humanity. The sacredness of humanity has, since the start of the twentieth-century become increasingly concentrated not only on human rights or humanitarianism more generally, but more specifically on the sacred bond of care for children. The sacrality of the nation also persists, revived particularly in the images of grieving for soldiers killed in service of their country. The stories of the murders of Millie Dowler, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, along with the deaths of 7/7 and public sympathy for the British military serving overseas, became public narratives that gave potent expression to these sacred sentiments. In this context, the intrusive acts of News of the World represent for many people an awful moral pollution, the profaning of moral boundaries beyond which lie only ‘animals,’ the ‘inhuman(e)’ and the ‘sick.’

At the moment of these latest disclosures, the story of  News of the World stopped being a simple political scandal and became a sacred drama in which the symbolic boundaries of sacred and profane took effect. News of the World became ‘toxic’, and the pollution stemming from it threatened to taint other parts of News International, the police and senior politicians. In the wake of such moral symbolism, public opinion became united to a degree rarely found in modern societies, and major profit-driven corporations pulled advertising from News of the World in their droves, expressing their (not often exercised) moral concern.

The power of this public moral sentiment should not be doubted. Today we witnessed News International abandoning it’s bid for the British television broadcaster BSkyB, a move that prevented the anticipated but highly unusual spectacle of all main British political parties voting for a Labour Party motion to stay the buy-out. In the current moral climate, no politician with any sense of self-preservation could vote against the motion, regardless of their party line. Many politicians will also be hoping that the moral stain spreading out from News International will not taint them, including Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, who until recently was doing everything he could to facilitate News International’s BSkyB buy-out.

In this sense the News International story seems to be about just how far the moral stain will spread, and whose careers will be ended by it. Amidst the moral indignation, something more complex is also happening. Fear ofNews of the World’s taint has so threatened advertisers and investors, closure of the newspaper became a logical outcome.

Rebekah Brooks, Chief Executive of News International

Yet in the wake of the closure, or rather because of it, some expressions of sympathy began for the ‘innocent’ News of the World staff sacrificed to protect Rebekah Brooks. Perhaps more startlingly, a newspaper that had received unprecedented public condemnation last week, sold an estimated 4.5 million copies in its final edition on Sunday as people rushed to get a ‘collector’s item.’ opies even reached an inflated price of thirty British pounds on Ebay. What does this commercial scrambling for a shamed product mean? Is it a show of hypocrisy or a sign of how superficial public indignation can really be?

Perhaps. But arguably, it demonstrates the fact that sacred meanings are highly fluid; the taint of the profane can move restlessly from one object to another as public opinion changes on who the culprit really is. The contingency of the sacred drama makes it unclear who the mark of profanity will finally fall upon. Even yesterday, at a committee hearing in the House of Commons, senior officers in the Metropolitan Police have sought to deflect blame from themselves by arguing that News International intentionally hampered their investigation. Key actors in the drama desperately try to position themselves, through the media, in ways that distance them from profanity. The ways in which journalists cover, and audiences respond to, these performances will have a decisive effect on cultural and political life not just in Britain.  Today US Senator Jay Rockefeller called for a full investigation of News Corp.

Such performances around the sacred and profane are powerful moments that clarify the moral boundaries of society. But they are not, in and of themselves, guarantors of a better society. The intense moral indignation gripping Britain at the moment not only demonstrates widely-held sacred commitments — to family, the “decency” of the nation, to respect for grief — but also obscures other parts of social life not captured in the spot-light of this sacred drama.

Amidst the News Corp drama, other questionable political  acts have been barely noted. This week the British Government announced measures that will lead to the privatization of many public services.  As well, a new university fees regime, which is likely to entrench divisions of privilege and disadvantage for at least a generation, was given final approval. Sacred dramas can create a sense of moral intoxication as feelings of outrage and horror combine. But beyond the intense drama lie other stories whose moral importance should not be forgotten.

Gordon Lynch is Michael Ramsey professor of modern theology at the University of Kent. His work focuses on the cultural sociology of the sacred, and the relationships between religion, media and contemporary culture. His next book, The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach is due to be published by Oxford University Press in spring 2012.