In Moscow, at some point in the past few days, a journalist called Oleg Kashin was attacked in an underpass near his home (or on his doorstep – accounts vary) by two men. They ‘smashed both his hand’ (and use inverted commas because the report I am doesn’t give details) or just the one (again, accounts vary and perhaps they were Lib Dems supporters and believed in moderation), ‘and cut off a finger’. He is now in hospital where doctors are also treating his two broken legs, two fractures to his jaw and a fractured skull (or one broken leg, depending upon which report you read, though under the circumstances I don’t think it really matters). Kashin, who works as a reporter for a newspaper called Kommersant, was said to have been investigating banned opposition groups and has reported on ‘extremist youth groups’, including one which calls itself the National Bolshevik Party. All this in democratic Russia. There were also details of an ‘armed raid by 50 masked police’ on a bank owned by Alexander Lebedev, one of Vladimir Putin’s sternest critics who, wisely, is now based in London where he owns the Evening Standard and The Independent.
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Meanwhile, here in Britain, the big story for the tabloids is that ‘Cheryl Cole ducked the X Factor vote’. To be fair they also carry far heavier stories – ‘Thousands of foreign convicts will be sent home’ (Mail), ‘No 10 asks business chiefs to help cut jobs (Independent), ‘Forty-six “dangerous” terrorists go free from jail’ (Telegraph) and ‘Benefit cuts will force poor out of South’ (Guardian) – but to my knowledge no reporter, whether from the broadsheets or the tabloids has been beaten to within an inch of his life for daring to report one of those stories. Four years ago, the journalist Anna Politkiovskaya was murdered in her Moscow flat. Admittedly, her death and the attack on Kashin are not everyday occurrences in Russia and I’m also sure that the Russian newspaper and magazine press carry just as much candyfloss as our noble British fourth estate (‘Teasy Tanya makes go-go eyes at Boris’). But it has long struck me as ironic that a ‘free Press’ is always less effective than the Press in a country where, de facto, it is less free. Burmese journalists do lay their liberty on the line when they do their job, as do hacks in Saudi Arabia, Iran and, still, several South American countries. Here in the Western world we hacks are more or less free to do our job and the greatest danger to our livelihoods is not from thugs who operate in the dark but extremely clever and ruthless lawyers who work the law and do the bidding of anyone willing to pay their very high fees. For example, current at the moment is the issue of ‘superinjunctions’. A ‘superinjunction’ is imposed by a court to ban the media from even reporting that an injunction has been taken out. So if a ‘personality’ has been caught with his trousers down, not only has he been able, under human rights legislation, been able to stop the media reporting as much – in that doing so would go counter to his ‘human right to privacy’ – but he can now also stop the media from reporting that he has done so by taking out a superinjunction. I am bound to add that many in the law and many judges are extremely unhappy with that development and I’m sure that at some point the Government will put the kybers on it, but at the moment it is the case. Naturally, different countries interpret the ‘freedom of the Press’ differently. In France, the media lay off the private lives of politicians, which allowed Francois Mitterand to have two families and many affairs without any of his arrangements becoming public. The U.S. takes a different attitude in that its libel laws are more relaxed than those here in Britain, and I can say anything I like about anyone, however outrageous, on the understanding that if it is untrue, the ‘victim’ can sue the pants off me and will. But my broad point is the irony that hacks – and I use the term to honour journalists, not to slag them off – operating in countries which has a ‘free Press’ are apt to take that freedom for granted and do rather less digging, whereas hacks working in countries where the Press has far fewer – de facto – freedoms might literally be risking their lives to do their job.
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Not all of the hacks that beaver away here in Northcliffe Towers are chained to their desks thinking up puns for headlines. And of those who do get out to sniff the outside world, not all are reporters or writers. It was one such hack, neither a sub nor a writer but who plays an important part on daily getting the Mail to its eager public and who I see daily, who I encountered in the gents this morning.
‘-,’ I asked, have you ever come across Andrew Marr?’
As he previously worked for the Times and as the pool of national newspaper executives living in London (‘executive’ being rather less grand than you might imagine) is comparatively small, it was quite likely that he had. Marr has also been around, having worked – and later edited – The Independent and writing the Economist’s Bagehot column before launching his broadcasting career. The Mail executive told me had.
What did he make of Marr? I asked him.
‘Rather pleased with himself,’ he replied.
That sums up my impression of Marr, although I can’t really even claim to have met him, despite my brief encounter in the Blackpool with the drunken Tory from Solihull in tow. But I regularly tune in to Radio 4’s Start The Week, which he chairs. Marr strikes me as the kind of man who thinks, almost daily, ‘intelligent people like us’, although I’m sure he is far too astute actually to use the phrase.