Wednesday, 26 January 2011

You forgot your long spoon, Andy, Fleet Street in a funk and Blair off the hook (more or less)

I’ve never really known when using a proverb or a saying shades off into using a cliché, so I shall leave it to my reader (how are you, by the way?) to decide whether the following is still a quaint precautionary saying or just a tawdry common or garden cliché: When you sup with the Devil, us a long spoon.

Whether or not it is a cliché or still a venerable piece of good advice is, however, pretty irrelevant in the case of Andy Gray, one-time Dundee United, Aston Villa, Wolves and Everton player as well as regularly turning out for Scotland (he was born in Glasgow), who then became the regular football pundit for Sky Sports when he retired. For Gray it is too late to do the wise thing and sit at the far end of the table when breaking bread with Lucifer. Yesterday, Sky sacked Gray over ‘sexist remarks’. Preparing for a touchline
interview at which one of the ‘assistant referees’, once known as linesman, was Sian Massey (right), Gray and made several ‘sexist’ comments about her. These were not broadcast publicly and would not have come to the undoubtedly profoundly horrified public’s attention if Sky had not decided to release the material on which these comments were made.

That was rather an odd thing for Sky to do, but I’ll get to that a little later. Sky then discovered two other instances when Gray made ‘sexist’ remarks – one to, Charlotte Jackson, a fellow sports presenter who was a woman – and decided that enough was enough and that Gray had to go. Pretty straightforward, you might think: man makes comments which, in 2011, are too off-colour, and his employer decides they cannot be tolerated.

The comments are, it must be said, rather low on the scale of what not to say, and I would be extremely surprised if Ms Jackson was in the slightest discomfited, although I shall be equally extremely surprised if the sisters who belong to our commentariat, many employed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, don’t make a full and quite substantial meal of this issue. I don’t work in broadcasting and for all I know it is a very different environment, although I doubt it.

But here in the wacky world of our female colleagues are not only treated with respect professionally, but they also hear – and dish out in equal measure – appallingly sexist comments every day they turn up for work. (A few years ago, I and two or three colleagues were on our way across the road to The Greyhound (aka The Rottweiler) for a drink before 11pm closing time. I passed a female colleague who had not been there when a visit to the pub was suggested and asked her: ‘Do you fancy a quickie?’ She said she didn’t. So I then said: ‘Well, why don’t you come across to the Rottie with us, then?’ Quite appalling.)

Back to Gray and how this tale of outrage over sexism is a tad murkier than might at first seem. Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation which also owns News International which, in turn owns our very own News Of The Screws.

Now, the Screws is in the shit because the saintly Guardian discovered a year or two ago that its reporters had been hacking into the mobile phone message boxes of rather a large number of celebrities and politicians. At the time, a token reporter and private investigator were jailed for doing it, but the story didn’t go away. Surely, everyone asked, the practice was far more widespread among Screws staff? And surely, they asked, the then editor Andy Coulson knew what his reporters were getting up to? Coulson denied it – to universal disbelief and cries of ‘well, he wasn’t much of an editor, then, if, as he claims, he didn’t know’ – but the it all caught up with him this week when, by now chief spokesman to Prime Minister David Cameron, he decided to resign because the story ‘wouldn’t go away’.

Next, the heat is on Scotland Yard to reveal exactly what its investigation into the phone hacking revealed; and, more pertinently, rather a lot of celebs are suing News International for apparently allowing the Screws staff to do what they did or, at the very least, not putting an end to the practice. And among those suing News International is one former footballer and, until yesterday, star football pundit Andy Gray. This did not go down well with News Corp. But bear with me, as it might even be murkier than that, although being murky it is not too clear what is going on and just how it relates to Gray’s sacking.

News Corp wants to buy the shares in Sky (or Sky BSB as it officially is) it doesn’t yet own. It wants full control of the satellite television station. But as News Corp ultimately owns The Sun, The News Of The World, The Times and the Sunday Times as well as holding a majority share in Sky, many claim gaining full control of Sky would not be healthy for competition in the media industry and the Government has been asked to take a look at it all.

Well, the Government has done so and might well refer the matter to our Competitions Commission. But it has first asked News Corp to take another look at its holdings and perhaps consider getting rid of some. So there is talk the Sky News might be sold (which I think is pretty unlikely, but then I have absolutely no specialist knowledge in these matters) or that Murdoch (OK, News Corp if you want to be pedantic) might rid himself of The Times and the Sunday Times. That, I think, would make more sense, because the The Times makes a loss and circulation is falling, although I think the Sunday Times still turns a profit.

As I say, I can’t for the life of me imagine how the desired complete takeover of Sky by News Corp would fit in with the sacking of one of Sky Sports football pundits, so I offer the above as background. What is, however, rather clearer is that News Corp, which is wholly embarrassed by the continuing phone hacking saga, is none too pleased with having one of its star pundits suing another part of its empire for potential millions. So the next time Murdoch, or more realistically one of his underlings, turns up on your doorstep to join you for supper, do remember the long spoon you would be advised to use.

. . .

You can believe that it was just the one rogue Screws reporter in cahoots with a private investigator who hacked into mobile phones or you can assume, as I think most of us do, that the practice was more widespread. After all, if he got stories that way and didn’t keep it too himself (something which hacks are utterly incapable of doing – if you want to spread a rumour, tell a hack and tell him to keep it secret), every other hack who heard about it will have tried the same schtick. And that is what other newspapers are worried about. Because if not just one Screws hack, but several did it, you can bet your bottom dollar that hacks on the Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, The People and the Daily Star were up to the same.

I can’t speak for the Daily Express or the Daily Mail, although yesterday I asked the chap who was news editor at the time the practice was rife whether the Mail got up to it, and he told me, no it hadn’t. Well, as Ms Rice-Davies would have said, he would, wouldn’t he. And it is not at all impossible that the Daily Telegraph would have been tempted to do the same. And if they did, it will all come tumbling out.

Which is rather bad news, because any number of MPs still smarting from being discovered with their fingers in the expenses till – claiming for duck islands, antique bookshelves, second homes which turned out to be a kennel in Govan - who are very keen indeed to get their own back for the mauling Fleet Street’s finest handed out. In the long run, with everyone looking like a loser over this one, I should imagine it will be brushed under the carpet, the Guardian will huff and puff and search its cliché dictionary for suitable descriptions of what has happened, the dogs will bark and the caravan will move on.

. . .

Speaking of caravans moving on, that would seem to have been the salvation of Tony Blair, who might perhaps be rather relieved, if not a little peeved, that he is now yesterday’s man and the invasion of Iraq is now yesterday’s news. We have far more modern issues to anguish over.

In evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, Lord Turnbull, one of his Cabinet Secretaries, more or less implied Blair was lying through his teeth when he claimed that at all times his Cabinet was kept fully informed of plans to invade Iraq. Not so, said Lord Turnbull, they knew very little about it until three days before the invasion when they were asked to rubber stamp it all.

But – apart from the friends and family of the estimated 100,000 Iraqis who have died in post-invasion violence and of the U.S. and British servicemen and women who have been killed – who cares. Most certainly not the public, who after the artificial prosperity of the Labour years now face having to pay the bill for the profligacy. Not being able to buy yet another 48in plasma TV for the kids’ bedroom? The shame of it!

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