Friday, July 8, 2011

The Belly of the Beast (3)

I've written about the phone hacking scandal here and here. In that last post, I ended by hoping that things might change. I'm not sure I really meant it. Since I left news journalism ten years ago or so, I've spent alot of my time fulminating about the desperate state of the British press. I have an unfinished, now dated novel which was basically an excuse to get my feelings about my time as a hack off my chest, and a half-written supposed-to-be-funny non-fiction account of being a young agency hack (now there's a word that has become pertinent), called Stop My Sex Change I've Fallen In Love (a story I wrote, not lived.) I have bored countless strangers about the nefarious activities of the tabloids, and crowbarred my tales of media iniquity into my books (and often been told to take them out - The Blood Detective had whole chapters about the press I was asked to remove, and wisely did as it didn't serve the story well.)

It has been an obsession of sorts for me. I was only a news reporter for five years, but they were what psychologists would call 'formative.' I saw and heard some terrible things done in the name of journalism. Worse, I heard reporters boasting of doing those terrible things. The level of cynicism was vast, matched only by the disdain many of my fellow hacks had for their readers. The culture of the tabloid newspapers I worked on was infested with all manner of macho posturing. Reporters were desperate to be known as 'operators', basically another word for being a conman. Those who blagged, bullshitted, hacked and lied the most were feted and glorified, while those who tried to stick to the rules, or some form of ethical code, were sidelined and laughed at. Often it wasn't the story that people were judged, but the means used to obtain it. It was all lies and illusion, because half the 'operators' were hiring private investigators to do their 'operating'. The more enterprising then learned the darker arts of these PIs; how to phone hack, or blag illegal information from unsuspecting companies, and word spread. It's no wonder the whole culture became foul and pestilent. These reporters and their editors thought they were above the law. And for a while they were. Once you hacked a phone, it became easier to do it again. Soon, it became part of many journalists' routine checks on a big story. Make a call to the cops, get a PI on the case, get some numbers, hack into the victim and family's phones and see what you can dig out.

Even now, I still can't believe the British press has been allowed to act as it did for so long. But most people didn't seem to care. Politicians continued to bow and scrape in front of their media masters, and punters continued buying sleazy rags in their millions. I grew bored of my righteous posturing (I wrote an article about a charity called Mediawise and the work it was doing to try and right the wrongs of the press, and was called sanctimonious by a few old colleagues...and even the guy who commissioned it) and went quiet. When the phone hacking scandal emerged, I pontificated on here and dusted off a few old stories for friends down the pub, some of whom were more minded to listen. Still, I never thought things would change. Murdoch and the press were just too powerful, the cops and the politicos too awed or compliant to act in a meaningful manner and change and challenge a media culture grown rotten.

Then came the events of this week.

First on Monday, came the revelation that a private investigator working for the News of the World, Britain's biggest selling paper, had hacked into the mobile phone of Milly Dowling, a teenager who was found murdered in 2002, after she had gone missing. If that wasn't sick enough, someone had then deleted some of the frantic messages from friends and family asking where she was so her answerphone wouldn't fill up and reject messages, and deny them a chance to hack in and hear them. Because the messages were being deleted, it led her family to believe that she was deleting them, and she might still be alive, a hope that was extinguished when her body was found a few days later.

People were understandably revolted by this. The phone hacking scandal went from being a minor if important story kept going by The Guardian, perceived widely to be about reporters hacking into celebrities' phones in search of gossip and scandal, into something far more sinister. It came as no surprise to me. I had always maintained that everyone was fair game for the hackers, even murdered teenagers. Similar things happened during a famous murder case in Soham, where two young girls were murdered. I head of appalling indiscretions by the press. The same with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal. Reporters hacking into phones of family, friends and police to try and steal a march on their rivals, intruding into personal grief and perverting the course of justice in the process.

Once the news of the Dowling hacking broke, the whole game changed. The Prime Minister, buddy and hirer of the worst culprits in this case, weighed in with his condemnation, promising judicial inquiries; the leader of the opposition finally grew some balls and condemned Murdoch and his cronies; even the other tabloids, who had so studiously avoided reporting the case because they are as complicit as any of Murdoch's papers, couldn't ignore the story and waded in. There came more revelations of more hacking: the phones of families of the murdered girls in Soham, the relatives of those who died in the 7/7 London terrorist bombings, the relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few more days, one wag said, and it seemed we would read that they hacked Anne Frank.

The revulsion and condemnation grew. The political outcry grow louder. More significantly, so did the financial outcry. Advertisers started pulling ads from the News of the World. The brand became toxic. Murdoch refused to sack Rebekah Brooks, the editor during the worst excesses of phone hacking, now a senior executive at News International. More worrying for Digger himself, his bid to take full control of British satellite TV company BSkyB was under threat. He had to act. Surely he would sack Brooks and anyone else who presided over the paper when its behaviour was at its worst, along with all the guilty hacks?

Wrong. He closed the newspaper. This Sunday's edition will be its last. 168 years of history gone in an instant, a breathtakingly cynical decision. Rather than sack one palpably guilty woman, who should really be facing a jail sentence as well as losing her job, and try and decontaminate the brand by apologising profusely, co-operating fully with the police investigation into the hacking and the judicial inquiries that are to begin soon, Murdoch simply closed the paper, sacking 200 journalists in one go, not all of whom were even at the paper when it was guilty of the crimes levelled at it.

There is sneaking fear that those responsible might get away with it. There is also a sneaking hope that from this whole sordid affair, we might actually get to see a rejuvenated and reformed British press that serves the public rather than hacks into its phones and treats us as fair game for its salacious tittle-tattle. We might get a truly independent, regulatory body that isn't an absolute waste of space like the Press Complaints Commission. To give you an idea of how useless and grotesque the PCC was, the editor who sent me to see a PI in 1998 and discuss things like phone hacking and the sliding scale of illegal information he could offer me, sat on the on the commission's body on ethics. We might also have a political establishment that doesn't go on bended knee to grovel to the press barons, and make policy on the basis of how well it plays in the press rather than how well it might work in reality.

I still have my doubts. But for someone who has been claiming the British press is sick to the core for some time, it has been a satisfying, if hardly uplifting week. Of course all I have done is sit and grumble on the sidelines. The credit for exposing this affair, for doggedly persisting with it when the political establishment didn't want to know, the police were trying to make it go away, and even public at large weren't interested goes to The Guardian newspaper, in particular a journalist called Nick Davies. If there is to be brave new world of British journalism, Davies should be the person everyone looks to for inspiration. He deserves every prize going.

A few years ago he wrote a book called Flat Earth News, a shocking indictment of the British press. Of course it went mainly ignored. Newspapers don't like books about how bad newspapers are. I saw one review it dismiss it as hysterical and preposterous. It was neither. It was sombre and sobering, an epitaph to an industry he loved and hated to see sliding down the moral pan. I read it and sent him an email telling him how timely and good I thought it was. He replied, thanking me and asked, as an ex-journo, if he could quote my email on his website, along with a few other media folk who had volunteered their support. I said I'd be delighted if he did. I wished him luck with the book and expressed a hope that it would change the culture of the business, but added, 'But you know what? I doubt it will. Sadly.'

I'm delighted to say I was wrong. Today, and it may only be brief, Rupert Murdoch looks a defeated man and the public, the politicians and even the press have made it pretty clear they want a different type of journalism.


Dan - Friday


  1. Wonderful post, Dan. I boil when I read the unadulterated crap written in newspapers under the rubric of NEWS. Little in the US newspapers is news anymore - most of it is opinion (or propaganda). Of course little can match the UK tabloids. I hope Murdock and his complicit employees are charged, tried, and found guilty.

  2. Quite a powerful bit of reporting, Dan! Let's hope Murdoch's rather obvious sacrificial lamb gambit doesn't provide political cover to those in government capable of doing something about a media far more powerful than any single elected official--in the UK and US.

    As the American Revolutionary war icon Benjamin Franklin is often credited with saying, "We must all stand together or assuredly we will all hang together." But the danger then was far less formidable, for it was only the British Empire, not its press.


  3. UHH, let's quote/type that accurately, Jeffrey: "We must all stand together or assuredly we will all hang SEPARATELY."


  4. A good read Dan, as a tog I missed most of this, but some of the things I was asked to do in the name 'of news' left me disillusioned to say the least

  5. A very powerful post, and it could just as easily apply to too many of the news outlets in the USA. Murdoch was certainly draconian, wasn't he? Inflicting more pain on people who have no more jobs, and kill off a paper with so much history. This is a society that had lost its moral compass, it seems, and too many people will pay.
    (Totally off topic or maybe not-I've discovered your books, and they are a joy. I love history-in addition to the mystery.)

  6. The tragedy is that the press, politicians and TV media are all mates together, as Cameron showed when he hired Coulson. This will probably all blow over in a few weeks. There will be a very expensive enquiry, some people will be sacrificed, and as with the expenses scandal all will be back to "normal" in a year.

  7. "A free society cannot flourish without a free independent press." In the US, freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution but newspapers have long since stopped using their power to encourage society to flourish. Instead, the newspapers pander to baser instincts of those who will waste their money on trash or they pass stories around from one press service to another so that every big city newspaper reads like every other.

    In 2003, the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service "for its courageous, comprehensive coverage in its disclosures of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church." That started a firestorm that has led, finally, to a modicum of justice for the victims and a blow to the church from which it may not recover for at least another generation. This is the reason for freedom of the press. Unfortunately, investigative journalism is expensive and the journalists capable of putting in the days, weeks, months of research have all been downsized out of their jobs.

    Murdoch is a blot on society and he has his power and money because people want to wallow in gossip, innuendo, and someone else's tragedy. The Milly Dowling episode is so egregious that anyone with a scrap of conscience who buys any of Murdoch's papers or buys the products that pay for advertising time on his television outlets should collectively choose a day on which they will not pay one dime to anything that can make Murdoch one penny richer.

  8. Beth - I agree. Investigative journalism will soon be a lost art. I hope, probably in vain, that some newspapers will look at Nick Davies and see what happens when you support and cultivate a journalist and his investigation.

    Norm, you are probably right. Except I hope, in vain again perhaps, that at least a regulatory body with some teeth will emerge from this. But make no mistake, there has been a sea change in journalism. It may not amount to much, but we will be spared some of the worst excesses.

    lil - thanks and I'm glad you enjoyed the books. Murdoch's decision to close the paper summed him up. He cares little for the institutions he owns, and everything for his own skin.

    Cheers Chris - you must let me know more.

    Jeff - the early signs are closing the paper hasn't made the story go away quite as they hoped. The Prime Minister is copping a lot of flak for his decision to hire Coulson as he press officer, and rightly so. Some more terrible revelations are said to be pending. It could run and run.

    Stan - there is every chance James Murdoch could be questioned by the cops. No chance, sadly, that his old man will. We can live in hope. I hope it doesn't make me sound too cruel and malicious that I derive a certain satisfaction from the fact he is still alive to see his empire and reputation crumble.