Monday, November 28, 2011

Hacks on the rack and how, when our glorious Press does, for once, do a decent thing, it is only to protect its own hide

It would be untrue to claim that at present the United Kingdom is gripped by the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into Press behaviour because the public simply isn’t gripped by it in the slightest. What interest it shows stems from the same nosey-parker tendency which led to the Press behaving badly in the first place: the public has a seemingly unquenchable thirst for witnessing the bad fortune of others, and our newspapers know there is good money to be made from attempting to quench that thirst. But it would be true to say that the Press themselves – the tabloid Press that is, not the saintly broadsheets, which are read by intelligent people don’t you know, the kind who hold a knife properly and don’t call supper ‘dinner’– are gripped by the possible outcome, and very bloody worried they are, too, as to where it will all lead. I don’t think anyone us under any illusion any more that tabloid hacks can sometimes – note ‘sometimes’ not ‘always’ – behave like complete scum, making the lives of those, whether they are ‘celebrities’ or not, a total misery as they pursue ‘the story’.

When the Press is under attack for its methods, it will often trot out that hoary old cliché ‘the public interest’, that it was behaving in ‘the public interest’, but that is, as so much else Press-related, a load of old cack. Years ago, a judge summed it all up rather well when he pointed out that there is a great difference between ‘the public interest’ and ‘what interests the public’. So, for example, the newspaper which published a story that the latest romance of actor Hugh Grant was on the rocks because of his close friendship with a ‘plummy-voiced’ studio executive would be extremely hard-pressed to substantiate any claim that had it not published the story the democracy of Britain was under threat. As a rule the Press tries to justify some of its worst behaviour by claiming – spuriously in my opinion – that any curtailment of its methods, even those used to gather stories which are not directly related to the well-being of the country’s democracy, would, in the long run, curtail its acknowledged role as guardian of democracy. In short, they claim that if we, the public, want a watchdog Press, we are obliged to take the rough with the smooth. And that, dear reader, dear member of the public, is, in my views, 24-carat bollocks. France, for example, not only has quite stringent privacy laws, but its Press is apt to give its politicians a very easy ride indeed when it comes to their private lives. So, for example, it was common knowledge that Francoise Mitterand not only had multiple mistresses, but that he also had a secret parallel family. Not a word of this ever appeared in print, yet would anyone seriously suggest that French democracy is under threat?

In a world of untruths and half-truths, it is wholly true that the public is unforgivably prurient: it has an insatiable appetite for tittle-tattle, and the more shocking that tittle-tattle is, the better. So it is wholly unsurprising that the Press is not disinclined to make good dough by satisfying that demand for the prurient details of the lives of others. And please don’t make the mistake in thinking that such a business model is restricted to the tabloid Press: the broadsheets also get in on the act as they know their readers, too, want to know every scummy detail. The wheeze they use which allows them to print it all yet appear to be above that kind of gutter behaviour is simply to run stories along the lines of: just look how shocking our gutter Press is – this is the kind of thing they are now publishing. They then publish the lot and their readers, too, can get their rocks off.

The trouble is that whereas 20 or 30 the News of the World could, say, splash on ‘The vicar of Little Magna is a homosexual’, in an age when that is no longer shocking – as someone pointed out, the love that dares not speak its name is now shouting it from the rooftops – it keeps having to go the extra mile. And given advances in technology and the new ways we choose to communicate with each other, it is no surprise that it will resort to using that technology to go that extra mile. That’s how this whole investigation into Press methods started: unscrupulous hacks were – er – hacking into the voicemails of celebrities, politicians, businessmen and our Glorious Royals (God bless The Queen and all who sail in her). As the boundaries of what shocked the public were further pushed outwards, the stories intended to shock the public into buying your paper in order to get the latest details had to become ever more outlandish. And if you didn’t have a good story, just make it up. Simple. That is apparently what happened in the case of the abduction of Maddy McCann, with the Press inventing stories they knew Maddy’s parents were in no position to discredit because It might compromise the investigation into their daughter’s disappearance.

. . .

By chance we are today reading a story on which, given the Leveson Inquiry into appalling Press behaviour, the Press cannot progress any further. It is a very sad story: Gary Speed, a well-liked and well-respected former Premier League footballer and the current manager of the Wales international team, hanged himself yesterday. His suicide came out of the blue (long gone are the days when we had to wait for an inquest into a death to rule it was an act of suicide before it could be described as such) and is described as ‘a mystery’ by the papers.

Actually, they all know it is no mystery whatsoever. Last night, I heard in the newsroom what is most likely to be the true explanation (and if I heard it, you can bet your bottom dollar it had already been round Fleet Street twice). Out of the blue Speed, a married man and the father of two young teenage sons, was informed that a tabloid ‘had proof’ that he was a closet gay and was going to publish its story. Speed told his wife, the couple had a blazing row, Speed spent the night sleeping in his car and in the morning took his own life. Normally, in reporting such a suicide, the Press would have no compunction whatsoever in reporting ‘the allegation’ – always a useful word for Fleet Street’s finest – that Speed was, in fact, gay.

Yet in none of the reports this morning is there so much as a hint of that allegation. As far as Fleet Street is concerned, Speed’s suicide is a complete mystery. So why the reticence? Obvious, really: no editor in his or her right mind would print such a tacky story while their highly paid briefs are attending an inquiry into their behaviour and doing their damndest to persuade the world and its inquiry that as a rule the tabloids are as pure as the driven snow and that any bad behaviour was only down to a couple of rogue reporters. That would have been another suicide. So, for once, they are doing the decent thing. But let it not be thought they are sparing the feelings of Mrs Speed and her sons. They are simply so far in the shit, it would be bloody stupid to see whether they might not get even deeper by printing ‘the allegation’ that Gary Speed was gay.

. . .

I’ve been posing as a hack for the past 37 years, five months and 24 days – I started my first job on June 4, 1974, taken on as a reporter by the Lincolnshire Chronicle. The paper was part of the then Lincolnshire Standard Group and had several sister papers. It had vacancies for trainee reporters on the Chronicle based in Lincoln, the Lincolnshire Standard which was based in Boston, and the Louth Standard, based in Louth. It was still a family-controlled group and I was interviewed by one of the family. I can no longer recall his name, but he had a big white beard and a very bad stammer. I was taken on by the Chronicle in Lincoln because I ‘was a graduate and Lincoln was a cathedral city’. To this day I don’t know whether he really was serious.
But this entry is not supposed to be about me. Some readers who have delved into the murky depths of previous entries will have gathered that I have a pretty low opinion of my fellow hacks when they are hacks. I must stress that: personally I like many a great deal, but when they turn up for work, something happens and they get very odd. To a man and woman they seem to believe that the world revolves around them. But I do have a great deal of respect for any number of men and women around the world who risk a great deal in their professional lives as journalists even their lives. To see why these people deserve our respect visit this site for more information. It makes gripping, though sad, reading. You could also try this site

I have never once described myself as ‘a journalist’ when asked what I do for a living. Ever. I’m not one. Being a journalist is not just something they decided to do afer watching Lou Grant on the telly or thinking it must be really amazing to have your own telly show and, like, actually interview Rhianna.

By the way, if you're thinking of taking a ‘media studies’ course at university, don’t bother. Absolutely no one in the industry takes them seriously and you'll only find yourself - if your’re lucky - drudging away writing copy for a local authority tourism website. It'll be that or working in a call centre. Do a proper course, such as history, law, languages, sciences. Don’t believe all the cack colleges tell you. Oh, and don’t bother with a college which is less than 30 years old - The University of Tring, that kind of thing. It is a real scandal how the previous Labour governments have short-changed school-leavers into thinking getting a degree is vital. Now every nurse ‘must be a graduate’ and no longer does much of the hands-on nursing. For all the arse-wiping etc. the NHS employs ‘nursing auxiliaries’ – who don’t have to have a degree. Can no one else spot the intellectual legerdemain in that piece of ‘policymaking’? Get a degree only if it’s a real degree, sweethearts. A BA in Sandwiching-making and Domestic Appliances will only see you making sandwiches and selling kettles for less than the non-graduate who is your manager. And follow your heart as well as your head. Don’t be strongarmed into ‘going to uni’ if what you really want to do is make a career for yourself in retail or become a mechanic or a properly trained plumber/electrician/carpenter. Remember, it’s your life.

. . .

I see the ‘eurozone ministers’ are getting together in Brussels later today to discuss ‘expanding the bailout fund’. With a bit of luck they’ll agree on a tearound order and after several hours of intense discussion we can no doubt expect a jointly agreed communiqué reassuring the world that they are ‘committed to finding a solution’ to the current crisis and ‘have every confidence that the euro will survive’. Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive, but to be young is very heaven! Or something like that. Anyone care to remind me what it is like to be young? I’ve rather forgotten. Oh, yes, now I do: I spend several years in my mid-teens petrified that I would never lose my cherry and that I would die a virgin.

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