Saturday, January 29, 2011

Plus ça change . . . (or why dog can rarely resist the temptation to take a large chunk out of other dog)

Now here’s an odd thing: New York’s esteemed Times is undoubtedly a heavyweight and serious newspaper of record. It is unlikely to carry reports about the most recent breast enlargement of whichever TV starlet is elsewhere flavour of the month or, given the number of other newspapers in the world, that one has just sacked an assistant editor. Like vice-presidents in US corporations, assistant editors on British papers are two a penny despite their rather high-falutin’ title. As a rule, when a senior hack is pipped at the post for the deputy editor’s job, he or she is sweetened with the title ‘assistant editor’ and, doubtlessly a pay rise, to ensure they aren’t tempted to jump ship and take with them editorial secrets to a new berth on a rival. But back to the New York Times and its surprising decision to report on a sacking at Britain’s News Of The World. The Screws, as we call it as the mainstay of its content is stories of illicit sex by footballers, soaps stars, politicians and businessmen, is certainly on of Britain’s bigger titles, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Times should therefore take an interest. But two days ago, it carried the shocking news that one Ian Edmondson, an assistant editor on the Screws had been sacked. It went on to explain that Ian (who might well be fat, paunchy and balding, but I really don’t know, so don’t assume he is) knew about a practice engaged in by Clive Goodman, one of the paper’s reporters, of hacking into the voicemail of celebs’ mobile phones. This practice is now officially frowned upon though when it went on under Edmondson’s indulgent eye, it most certainly wasn’t and proved to be a lucrative source of stories. But times have changed and our Ian now got the chop.
This was not the first time the venerable, oh-so-proper New York Times reported on the phone hacking allegations. Two weeks ago, it reported that an official investigation into the allegations was being reopened by the Crown Prosecution
Service which had earlier decided there was not enough evidence to bring charges against Andy Coulson (pictured and looking far younger than he has any right to do), who was Screws editor at the time the practice was going on. Coulson resigned after Goodman was jailed for his journalistic initiative, although he denied then and has always since denied that he knew what Goodman was up to. He went on to work as prime minister David Cameron’s ‘communications director’ and is credited with sharpening up the Tories’ public performance considerably, but he resigned that post, too, after the story of the hacking allegations and questions as to whether he knew more than he says refused to go away.
Well, you might think, there’s the story the New York Times was interested in: the ‘communications director’ of Britain’s prime minister leaves under a cloud. Not exactly world-shattering news, but certainly something a paper of record can take an interest in. Well, funnily enough, the Times didn’t take an interest in that aspect of it at all. So why is the Times so concerned with a relatively minor, semi-criminal practice engaged in by at least one (though we all suspect far more) more than 3,000 miles away? All becomes obvious when you mention the name ‘Rupert Murdoch’. It is a name which is most probably familiar to many: he owns, or largely owns, a ‘media empire’ which most of the rest of us don’t. It is called News Corp and part of that empire is a company called News International which owns the News Of The World. Oh, and another part of that empire is Dow Jones & Company which owns and publishes the Wall Street Journal which just happens to be one of the New York Times’s arch rivals. Oh, and Murdoch also owns the New York Post, another of the Times’s rivals, although given the Post’s constituency, it would be silly to describe the paper as an arch rival. Rival will do.
So there you might have it: serious ‘paper of record’ not above a little commercial mischief-making. Perhaps. Certainly, the Times has ample wriggle room and could well deny it is up to nothing of the sort, but to that I would respond ‘pull the other one, it’s got bells on it’.

. . .

There is no denying that, whether you love him hate him or – surely the view of the vast majority of people – you are indifferent to him, Rupert Murdoch has achieved a great deal in building up a his media empire. It has to be said that he did not do so from scratch but built it from a comparatively small newspaper group his father had owned. But before he inherited the business, he did spend a little time getting to know what life as a hack was like. I know this because around 1955, the writer and journalist Michael Green (The Art Of Coarse Rugby and The Art Of Coarse Acting, and the Squire Haggard column in the Daily Telegraph) spent some
time as a sub-editor on the Birmingham Post where, for a short time, Murdoch (pictured) was a fellow sub after graduating from Oxford. His time on the Post was quite short because his father died, and Rupe returned to Melbourne to take over the family business. I mention this because 25 years later, I spent two years working as a sub on the Birmingham Evening Mail, the post sister paper. So Rupe and I have a connection. Spooky.
I know Murdoch is the bête noir of loads and loads of people, but there is one comment he made which somehow endeared me to him for life. The Times is now part of News International and, as far as I know, still not making a profit. In fact, the last time it did make a profit, again as far as I know, was in the 19th century when it lease the patent for the then revolutionary roller press and was able to produce, distribute and sell far more copies than its rivals who still had to make do with laborious flatbed press. Eventually, the patent expired and the good times were over for The Times. It slipped into making a loss and even when it was taken over by Lord Norhtcliffe in 1908 (though he was then still Alfred Harmsworth and arguably the Rupert Murdoch of his day), it could not be coaxed into making a profit.
In 1981, two years after the Times was closed because of an 11-month strike, the Thomson Organisation realised it could not carry on and the paper (with its sister title The Sunday Times) was bought by Murdoch. By then it had firmly sunk into the habit of believing its own bullshit and regarded itself (though few others did) as the world’s premier newspaper. Murdoch’s British profits were firmly base on the decidedly downmarket Sun and News Of The World, and the maiden aunts who predominantly staffed The Times were horrified to be associated with such folk. It has long been regarded and had long regarded itself as the Establishment’s newspaper and there were even ‘questions in the House’ as to whether it was advisable that a paper of such a pedigree should be allowed into the soiled hands of some such upstart as Murdock. So its ‘editorial board’ demanded an undertaking from Murdoch that ‘he would not interfere editorially with the paper’. To which Murdoch, now perhaps the holder of a Yankee passport but in spirit forever an Australian, replied: ‘I didn’t spend fucking £5 million pounds buying a newspaper not to interfere editorially’. Even now it makes me smile with pleasure.

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