The U.K. Press Misconduct Inquiry Is Almost Unbearably Delicious

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Hugh Grant at the Leveson inquiry into press misconduct.
Hugh Grant at the Leveson inquiry into press misconduct.
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If the Leveson inquiry into U.K. press misconduct sparked by this year's phone-hacking revelations were a menu item at a restaurant, it would be an Oreo, deep-fried, smeared with whipped cream and tucked into a Hardee's Thickburger. The excesses of celebrity and the media, two of the most excessive institutions around, have been on display with a parade of stars and journalists appearing before the Royal Courts of Justice to describe just how far reporters have gone in ferreting out a scoop. If this were the U.S., such a hearing would be a lawyered-up affair, with say-nothing statements read in monotone. But Brits being Brits, we're getting a nice display of wry, deadpan, and knowing commentary on the awkward symbiosis that exists between the hunter and hunted.

Intellectually, it's the stuff of a ninth-grade mandatory summer-read short story, but it's damn entertaining.

The Guardian's James Robinson gave us a useful roundup of the proceedings, capturing both substance and style. "David Sherborne should be on the stage," he wrote:

The barrister representing the 51 "victims" of the press has a theatrical manner and a sharp dress sense, wearing the same slim-fitting black suit to the Royal Courts of Justice each day. Sherborne rarely uses one word when he can reach for 10 instead, adding flourishes wherever possible. His questions to the Daily Mail, Sherborne said, have not merely been ignored, but met with a "deafening silence". Leveson can barely mask his irritation at times, repeatedly instructing Sherborne not to make speeches, a request he consistently ignores.

Meanwhile, The New York Times' Sarah Lyall pulled off some nice deadline reporting in her lyrical and pleasantly allusive account of the testimony of Paul McMullan. Mr. McMullan, now a pub owner, was once deputy features editor for The News of the World, but don't let that bland job description fool you.

Underhanded reporting techniques are not shocking at all, he said, particularly in light of how often he and his colleagues risked their lives in search of the truth.

As examples of the dangers of his job, he described having cocaine-laced marijuana forced on him by knife-wielding drug dealers in a sting operation; being attacked by a crowd of murderous asylum seekers; and, in his "Brad the teenage rent boy" guise, sprinting through a convent dressed only in underpants to escape the pedophile priest he had successfully entrapped.

"Phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool, given the sacrifices we make, if all we're trying to do is get to the truth," Mr. McMullan said, asking whether "we really want to live in a world where the only people who can do the hacking are MI5 and MI6."

Since launching in the U.S., Spotify, of which I am a subscriber and a hearty user, has dominated the future-of -the-music-business debate. This week, the company announced plans to open its platform to third-party developers, so folks like old-time curators of taste Rolling Stone and Billboard can insinuate themselves into the app's heretofore critic-less music-discovery scene. This is moderately exciting news, but there remains a question to be expressed in as shrill a voice as you can muster: WHAT ABOUT THE ARTISTS?!!!!

Singer-songwriter Derek Webb has a provocative answer to that : He's better off giving music away than selling it on either Spotify or iTunes. Considering that one of his lyrics is "I am a whore I do confess, I put you on just like a wedding dress," he's worth listening to.

Why does Derek dismiss the ducats? It's all about customer-relationship management:

If someone buys my music on iTunes, Amazon, or in a record store (remember those?), let alone streams it on Spotify, it's all short-term money. That might be the last interaction I have with that particular fan. But if I give that fan the same record for free in exchange for a connection (an e-mail and a zip code), I can make that same money, if not double or triple that amount, over time. And "over time" is key, since the ultimate career success is sustainability. Longevity. See, the reality is that out of a $10 iTunes album sale, I probably net around a dollar. So if I give that record away, and as a result am able to get that fan out to a concert (I can use their zip code to specifically promote my shows in their area), I make approximately $10 back, and twice that if they visit the merch table. I can sell them an older/newer album and make approximately $10 back. The point is , if I can find some organic way to creatively engage them in a paid follow-up transaction, I increase my revenue 10 times on any one of these interactions.

If there was video of me reading Sam Anderson's New York Times Magazine riff on the genre of the reaction video, it would look a little like this:

And my reaction to the piece isn't only about its success in getting a reference to "2 Girls 1 Cup" (don't Google it) into the pages of The Old Gray Lady, or at least its glossy kin.

The most striking thing about reaction videos, if you watch a string of them, is their sameness. There are little stylistic differences -- one guy will shriek and jump out of his chair; another will just sit there open-mouthed -- but everyone basically has the same responses at the same moments. The great lesson of the genre is that we are physically different -- our couches, beds, hairstyles -- but spiritually uniform. A grandmother sitting in front of a ferret cage is the same as two college girls in a dorm room. This is part of the appeal of reaction videos: they allow us to experience, at a time of increasing cultural difference, the comforting universality of human nature. It's no accident that all of this started on YouTube in 2007 -- at a moment when, and in a place where, human experience was beginning very visibly to splinter. Watching thousands of people react identically to "2 Girls 1 Cup" ("Come on!" they invariably shout, and "Why!?") feels like a comforting restoration of order and unity. Which means that the most disgusting and offensive video ever to go viral was ultimately, oddly, a force of togetherness.

In a world of Texts from Bennett (that one you can Google), it's nearly impossible to parody the overlapping absurd worlds of meme-mongering and viral marketing, but Jennifer Mendelsohn gives it a go for McSweeneys with her funny imagining of a company selling products it guarantees will bring internet fame.

Bronze (Babies) Package: $49.99 The Bronze Video begins with twin three-month-old babies. The babies are doing a spot-on, soulful cover of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" on the set of the Ellen DeGeneres show. Midway through the song, Lady Gaga herself surprises the babies and joins them on stage. The results of American Idol are then announced, and the babies cry hysterically when their contestant does not win. You will laugh uncontrollably at the crying babies until the face of Linda Blair from The Exorcist suddenly comes on the screen and scares the crap out of you, causing you to fall backwards off your chair. Your reaction to this video will, of course, be part of your video. For an additional $9.99, your video can also include a supercut, showing a montage of all the highlights of your video compressed into sixty hilarious seconds.

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