Britain's 'Appetite for Scandal'

Would you like some scandal with that meat pie?

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The cliché: "An appetite for scandal." After days of blaming Rupert Murdoch, et al., for the phone hacking tactics at News of the World, columnists have turned on the British tabloid-buying public itself, accusing the Brits of using  papers with lax standards to fill the hole in their stomachs left by their national cuisine.

Who's on board "Here is the bottom line: British newspapers pay the police for scandal because the British newspaper-reading public has such an enormous appetite for scandal," writes Anne Applebaum in The Washington PostThe public has a "great appetite for the product of the guilty papers," says Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian. Stephen Hume writes in The Vancouver Sun that "it’s the public’s insatiable appetite for manufactured scandal and celebrity sensation that made the News of the World into Britain’s biggest circulation newspaper." The public "finally began to take an interest in the methods used to fuel their diet of tittle-tattle," writes Mary Ann Sieghart of The Independent. Taking the metaphor a step further, she says of the past few decades of complicity, "Most readers simply preferred not to know, just as some would rather not know what's in their meat pie."

Where it's from Literary references to an "appetite for scandal" appear as early as the 18th century. "The prying eyes of malice," writes Jonathan Swift in 1784, "might furnish food to the appetite for scandal." And just as the hunger for gossip itself has never gone out of vogue, neither has this particular phrase.

Why it's being used Journalists are using the word "appetite" as a shorthand for their attempt to widen the scope of the News of the World story. Observers have already found many culprits apart from Murdoch and his staff, including politicians and elites who have long kowtowed to Murdoch. So in the first sense, this is just an attempt to point yet another finger.

Why else? With Michelle Obama and Beyoncé urging us all to "move our bodies," and many of us having more pounds on our bodies than we'd like, food metaphors can carry a certain sense of the forbidden. No wonder journalists are equating the British readership that feigns ignorance of the tabloid tactics to a morning commuter who happens not to see the calorie count on his morning muffin. (Admittedly, it is hard to believe Brits might consume their meat pies with anything like the appetite they show for News of the World scandals.) But really, for most of the columnists, the indictment of the hungry public is just the next step toward accusing not just Murdoch-holdings, but the British tabloid industry at large of shady tactics. "As if such abuses were confined to News International," writes Roger Cohen in The International Herald Tribune, portentously adding, "We shall see." Or perhaps they simply all wrote their columns just before lunch.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.