Friday, September 3, 2010

The Belly of the Beast

British journalism once again finds itself in the dock, thanks to an unlikely source. While every single British newspaper apart from The Guardian has proved that dog doesn't like to bite dog and avoided reporting a long-running saga over illegal phone hacking by the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, The New York Times has revived the controversy by publishing a piece in which it claims former NOTW editor Andy Coulson, now press secretary to the Prime Minister David Cameron, 'actively encouraged' his staff to tap into people's voicemail messages in the pursuit of stories.

In a nutshell, the story goes thus: in 2007 the News of the World's royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator he hired were jailed for illegally intercepting the private phone messages of eight people. Among these were Princes Harry and William. The allegation was that this was only the iceberg's tip, and the practice was endemic throughout tabloid journalism, hordes of journalists were up to it, and there were many more victims whose privacy had been invaded illegally - up to 3000 is the figure I have seen quoted, a bit more than eight. However, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service didn't take the investigation further. The conclusion being that Goodman was a rogue who acted alone, without consent from his superiors, and it stopped and ended with him. The more cynical pointed out the traditional close links between the NOTW and the police. The paper has a history of exposing people and turning their files over to the cops. Perhaps someone in Scotland Yard didn't want to jeopardise that relationship? The even more cynical wondered whether the Yard weren't just terrified of Rupert Murdoch and how vituperative his media organisations can be when faced with any sort of criticism.

Andy Coulson
Count me in the latter camp. I am a former news journalist (you could claim therefore I've always written fiction...) I worked for several tabloid newspapers. The use of private detectives and accessing private information  was and is commonplace. In the few years I spent in the business, I witnessed it many times. I saw a private detective call a woman who the media wanted to track down and pose as a pharmacist to obtain her address; I visited a private detective who boasted he could obtain details of people's criminal records; and another who claimed he knew a guy who worked for British Telecom who was willing to bug the phone of anyone we wanted for a small fee. While at the latter's house, several journalists called asking for information, ex-directory numbers, credit card histories, on people they were writing stories about. Mobile phones were not so ubiquitous then as they are now, but I heard journalists bragging about how they knew someone who could access voicemail messages of the rich and famous. It was clear this would be a fruitful avenue for skullduggery  in the future. So, the idea this was a one-off is preposterous, but that was the image News International - who own the NOTW, as well the country's biggest selling daily newspaper, The Sun, and the once-respected Times - and their sister media outlets managed to convey.

The New York Times appears to have evidence that the police did not share all the evidence it had with the Crown Prosecution Service, the inference being that if it had the CPS would have reached a different conclusion and more arrests might have been made. It is also emerging that hundreds of people whose phones were hacked into were never told about it by the police. Meanwhile, while all this went on. the self-regulatory newspaper watchdog - though lapdog would be more appropriate, given some of the board who adjudicate are editors who pronounce on their own newspapers - sat on its hands and said, while it deplored the practice of phone hacking, the matter had been dealt with, and there was little else it could do.

British journalism is in an abysmal state. It protests vociferously about privacy laws, squeals about how the European Court of Human Rights is curbing press freedom, while squandering the freedom it has chasing tawdry stories to titillate readers. It hides behind the 'public interest' but seems to define that term as anything the public is interested in. It tramples over anyone who gets in its way, chews it subjects and spits them out. Getting the story is more important than getting the story right. I know countless examples of people who had been offered money in return for their story, who then spoke, only for the newspaper to find a way to wriggle out of them paying a penny once the story appeared in print. It would be hoped the good work of The Guardian and The New York Times might help blast away some of the grime which clings to the British press, and that a sleazeball such as Coulson, whose prominence and position given his track record is a travesty, might get his comeuppance, but I wouldn't hold your breath. The biggest lesson I learned from my years as a news reporter - in perhaps an echo of Leighton's fascinating and disturbing post on Monday - is that the press has the power and holds the great and the good in its thrall; it will always win.


Dan - Friday


  1. Rupert Murdoch has done more to degrade freedom of the press than any demagogue.

    In the US, Murdoch has, through Fox News,created a 24 hour cable news channel that doesn't report any news. It does nothing but present disinformation and actual lies about President Obama. During the Bush administration, it was the voice of the Republican party. Not one negative word about Bush or the war he invented so he could wear a flight suit was ever presented.

    When it became clear that John McCain would not be elected president, Fox changed from being a Republican apologist to being the attack dog of the right. Now it is a 24/7 drumbeat of lies about Obama.

    It is the most watched news source in the country. Newspapers are in their final throes and people who have the right to vote make decisions based on the insane histrionics of Glenn Beck. Fox and its enablers have succeeded in convincing working people that Social Security, that government program invented by FDR and into which they have paid their entire working lives, should be scrapped because it is government infringement on their personal lives. It is only those who make over $250,000.00 per year who don't depend on Social Security payments when they retire. Social Security is fully funded through 2037? Who would take control of that money if it wasn't to be paid out to the people to whom it belongs?

    Until recently the two newspapers of record were the New York Times (liberal) and the Wall St. Journal (conservative). Anyone who wanted a "fair and balanced"(this is now Fox News'byline) assessment of major issues would read the editorials in each paper and draw their conclusions from these trusted sources.

    Except now the Wall St Journal is part of Murdoch's empire and most people who read the paper don't know it. So much for unbiased journalism.

    Everyone who grew up in the 60's remembers the racial divides that existed before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It wasn't perfect but things were better. We were stupid enough to believe that Obama's election was the sign we had become our better selves. Fox News became the means by which lies about Obama have become fixed in the minds of those who can only hold one thought at a time. Fox and its friend Rush Limbaugh, whose hate in unbounded, made it clear from election night, that they would destroy this man's presidency before it even got started. They are the source of the belief of 15% of the people in the US that Obama is a Muslim, a communist, and who was educated at a midrassa.

    I am glad I'm old and I'm glad I don't have grandchildren. In a country where people are saying, with a straight face, that a Palin-Beck ticket would be a winner in 2012, one has to wonder who is the puppet-master.


  2. Yup, I agree wholeheartedly Beth. There has been no more malignant force on our culture and media than Rupert Murdoch. There is a fascinating history of The Sun newspaper in which the story of Murdoch's first appearance and rise to power. He simply wasn't taken seriously at first. Dismissed as an Aussie vulgarian. The view was that he would flounder and disappear. If only. He is now the kingmaker of British politics, pretty much pulls the purse strings of much of British sport, increasingly sets the agenda both on screen and in print, and his publishing arm is becoming more and more Orwellian in the way it polices what books it will and will not print. He's one on the list for a bullet should a time machine be invented.

    But then people buy his papers, watch his news channels in their millions. Go figure.

  3. Talk about serendipity, Dan! Hard to believe that we had these two pieces developing independently and coming out on successive days. Two sides of the same coin, it seems. And, of course, one leads to the other.
    Thanks for these great insider insights!