It is not every day that the Press distinguishes itself. Always keen to justify its existence by reminding us of the ‘fourth estate’s’ fundamental role in bolstering and protecting democracy, of which the people’s ‘right to know’ what is in ‘the public interest’ is an essential element, it nevertheless all too often shoots itself in the foot as the various papers vie to out-trivialise each other. Any number of High Court judges have pointed out that we should not confuse ‘the public interest’ with ‘what the public is interested in’, and despite valiant, not to say desperate, attempts to persuade the public that its activities are vital to the continued well-being of democratic society, many newspapers fail dismally to convince. Would the free world as we know it really come crashing to the ground if we weren’t told who Jordan (‘Katie Price’) has most recently been shagging or that Cheryl Cole is considering dyeing her hair blonde? Well, not on the face of it. Yet, oddly, there is a connection, in as far as we are always obliged to take the rough with the smooth. And it does get very rough indeed.
Her Majesty’s Press is often accused of ‘making up stuff’, and unfortunately that’s quite true. I know, because I’ve done so myself. ‘Quotes’ are never really what people say for the simple reason that ‘people’ - we call them ‘civilians’ - are largely illiterate and rarely speak grammatically or coherently, and even if they did, they cannot be relied upon to say what we want them to say. So naturally quotes have to be improved, quite often substantially. Whenever you see a quote which runs along the lines of: ‘My husband, 43, a lorry driver from Chiswick ...’, you know damn well that the lorry driver’s wife said nothing of the kind. Once I made up a 200-word quote by Princess Di, purportedly something she said while visiting New York. I had to do it, because the copy was way too short for the space it was intended to fill, and, anyway, what I had her say was so tediously innocuous and so utterly vague that she might well have said it anyway. The fact that she didn’t is neither here nor there.
When things get really rough, as of course they inevitably do when one is operating in a multi-million pound industry, being in the crosshairs of the Press at large can, however, become intolerable. Ninety-nine per cent of us have never experienced being ‘door-stepped’, but those who have can testify to the British hack’s unrivalled tenacity in getting what he or she wants at whatever the cost — there are no rules. None at all. They know damn well that, with a gang of hacks knocking on the door non-stop - and in these situations arch-rivals working for opposing newspaper work as one unit, much like a pack of scavenging dogs, and only turn on each other later on — everyone caves in sooner or later. (Well, everyone except those wealthy enough to apply to the courts for a ‘super-injunction’ which prevents publication of everything. That is a recent and very worrying development her in Britain, but outraged jeering at it must be left for another time.)
Theft by hacks pursuing a story is not unknown, and at the present time the issue of newspapers hacking into the mobile phone messages of celebrities and politicians is active (the Prime Minister’s Press secretary has already been forced to resign over the matter as much of it took place while he was still editor of the News of the World), but still we are obliged to take the rough with the smooth. Every so often, politicians - usually of the Left - moot that we should have some kind of Press regulations here in Britain, to curb the worst of the fourth estate’s behaviour. It is not too difficult to see why they might be keen on shackling the media: last year the Daily Telegraph had a field day detailing the way many of our MPs had been abusing their expenses system, which ranged from the utterly fatuous - one MP had a ‘duck island’ built and claimed it on expenses - to the criminal - three Labour MPs have been jailed for their fiddling. Had there been some kind of mechanism for the House of Commons to determine that is expenses fiddling was not revealed, you can bet your bottom dollar we would never have found out about it and, worse, one or two hacks would now be languishing in jail for trying to publicise it anyway. But any kind of state regulation of the Press would be very dangerous indeed (and the British being more bloody-minded than many, that will, I’m certain, never happen in Britain), so we are most definitely obliged to take the rough with the smooth. And by the same token, we are also obliged to accept the utterly, utterly ludicrous and pretend that those responsible for presenting it to us are perfectly rational men and women.
The other day, I turned up for work, bought my cup of tea in the canteen (make that polystyrene beaker of tea), took the lift to the third floor, went to my desk and began to look through that day’s paper. I only rarely actually read anything in it, I just glance at each page and pay special attention to those I had worked on the previous day to see whether I had cocked up or not. (I do sometimes - a few years ago, while cutting and pasting letters on the letters’ pages into a different order, I got into a horrible muddle and many names and addresses were attributed to the wrong letters. There were complaints from readers - a spinster in Norwich insisted she had not written to the paper demanding the legalisation of cannabis - and a huge inquiry as to what had gone wrong. But I was able to cover my tracks, and to this day no one knows it was my cock-up and mine alone. So you heard it here first, though I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself. One major failing of newspapers, especially the big, important ones, is that they do not have a sense of humour. One day I might tell you how I accidentally closed down Newcastle airport all on my own. Flight delays, a search by police for bomb which didn’t exist - I’ll tell you some day.)
Anyway, I got to page 28 and saw the following:
This house in Swansea, apparently, is the spit of Adolf Hitler. And to prove the point, we also published a picture of the man himself. Here it is. Can you spot the resemblance? I sorry to say that I can, just. Just. It grieves me, but there’s no denying it: that terrace house in Swansea does actually look a bit like Hitler. But what is important is this: Old Blighty, Perfidious Albion, the UK, Great Britain, call it what you will, the choice is yours, will always, always, always, remain a country of stout-hearted men and women while Her Majesty’s Press continues to publish pictures of houses that look like Adolf Hitler. Cue Land Of Hope And Glory. Do you know, I think I’m going to cry.
. . .
Incidentally, my advice to everyone approached by a hack, whether they work for a newspaper, magazine, TV or the radio, is to tell them to fuck off. And make no exception. Bear this in mind: they are not working in your interests but their own. And if they don’t get it wrong, they make it up, and if they don’t make it up, they get it wrong.