World of the news

OK, the news. Preamble: in 1999, I was writing for Heat magazine. Seems unlikely now, but when it was first launched by Emap – the publisher for whom I’d worked on Select, Empire and Q before I went freelance – it was not the epoch-defining behemoth of celebrity tittle-tattle and eugenics that it is today; rather, it was a typically middlebrow attempt at a British Us Weekly: a bit of everything under one roof. To give you an idea of how different it was in its first, not-very-successful incarnation, I was commissioned to write a 1,300-word double-page spread comparing books about serial killers (“Dahmer cooked and ate the bicep of one victim with salt and pepper and steak sauce: ‘My consuming lust was to experience their bodies'”), and another comparing books about war (quoting Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad at this much length: “The silence that fell on 2 February in the ruined city felt eerie for those who had become used to destruction as a natural state. Writer Vasily Grossman described bomb craters so deep that the low-angled winter sunlight never seemed to reach the bottom, and ‘railway tracks, where tanker wagons lie belly up, like dead horses'”). Confusion initially reigned about what tone the new weekly should take. It was on fire in the TV ads, but not in real life.

Anyway, I was dispatched to interview Chris Tarrant, by then a huge TV star again thanks to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It was a hugely enjoyable interview and I delivered the copy. However, there was a problem. I hadn’t asked about his estranged stepson. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know he had a stepson, estranged or otherwise. But it had been in the tabloids apparently. And, sensing a certain lack of newsstand appeal, the editors of Heat seemed to want to move into a different realm. I was pretty mortified to have to go back to Tarrant’s PR and request a “top up” chat with Chris about this urgent matter that I had failed to ask him about on the day, too busy was I asking him about Tiswas.

Tarrant was, I felt, gracious in agreeing to a bonus 10 minutes on the phone. He was in the back of a car being ferried somewhere, and, forewarned, he knew I was calling about more personal matters. I apologised for what I was about to ask him, and explained that I was under the cosh, but he said fire away. This is what I had been instructed to ask, and what he said, and what was printed, in full, at the end of the subsequent interview in Heat (you can skip past it if you’re not interested in a TV presenter’s relationship with his stepson in 1999):

Your 18-year-old stepson Dexter told one of the tabloids last year that you had thrown him out, saying, “Chris was an egotistical pig who tried to buy his family’s love with money.” What went on there?

The bottom line was, he wasn’t thrown out, he chose to run off into the night because he didn’t like the idea of doing a day’s work. It was very hard at the time, particularly on his mum, very upsetting all round. He and I are now having a continued dialogue, we’re working towards a sort of amicable reunion. He made his protest like all kids at 18 do, but had no idea that it was such a ridiculously high-profile thing to do. It happens to half the families in the country, but unfortunately because he’s my kid it became a big deal. Dexter himself has been amazed, horrified and saddened by this huge public profile that he then got. He’s cool, I spoke to him yesterday.

Other than that, the press have been pretty good to you haven’t they?

Until Heat really. Those stitch-up bastards!

As you can see, he accepted his fate as a public figure with tabloid form with good humour and honesty. But I felt dirty. I was a freelancer, so I was cutting off a revenue stream, but I made clear that I was uncomfortable with this type of work, and I wasn’t asked to write any more profile interviews. As it turned out, the magazine turned a corner when Mark Frith took over the rudder and the launch of Big Brother decided the magazine’s fruitful fate. I was no longer required, and nor were my 1,300-word book pieces. (I guess the real irony of all this, is that David Hepworth and Mark Ellen were the launch editors – and it was Mark who’d sent me back for the extra tabloid content on Tarrant. Now, both of these men understand magazines, and Mark has a natural instinct for how to tell a story, which he uses when commissioning and editing for Word, but a more decent, honest, faithful and true pair of gents you would not meet. It does seem bizarre now that they started Heat. But they did.)

This was my first, last and only flirtation with tabloid journalism, and even then, at one remove from the real thing. It’s not my strong suit. I’m rubbish at getting the killer quote. If I ever have got one, it has been by accident. My interview style is to try to find some common ground and develop a matey rapport with my interviewee in the allotted time, which can sometimes lead to a relaxed enough attitude for enlightening stuff to come out. Most of the time, you just get a chat. I’m happy enough with this, but don’t come to me for a scoop. Leave that to the journalists.

As we speak, the profession of journalism seems to have split down the middle. On one side, we have the venal, unscrupulous, immoral, bloodthirsty, phone-hacking News Of The World scum; and on the other, the noble, investigative, truth-seeking, establishment-undermining Guardian knights in shining armour, who broke the phone-hacking story, and dragged it out into the open from the shadows of nepotistic self-interest and corruption. It is worth stating that not all tabloid journalists are scum. Not all journalists are tabloid journalists. And not all non-tabloid journalists are saints. Equally, not all journalists who worked at the now-defunct News Of The World were involved in illegal phone-hacking. But it seems fairly likely that journalists at other tabloid newspapers will have also paid for phones and emails to be hacked; after all, if it was common practice at one Sunday tabloid, it was probably on the menu at the others. After all, the newspaper market, in decline now, has always been pretty cutthroat. At the visible end, we’ve seen price cutting, bingo wars, spoilers and endless free CDs, DVDs, downloads and Greggs steak-bake vouchers; behind closed doors, far worse goes on.

“Tabloid journalism” is not restricted to the tabloids. Everybody’s after a quote or a headline, a line it can sell, whether it’s the Sun, or 6 Music News, or Radio Times. Tabloid mentality is endemic, and as the media marketplace becomes ever more frantic, attention spans more microscopic, and the meat on the bones of the available audience ever more scarce, tactics will get dirtier. Or maybe, now that the deletion of texts from a murdered schoolgirl’s mobile stands as the flashpoint for the current crisis of confidence, tactics will have to be cleaned up. At least until we’ve all forgotten about it.

Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks are merely the most public and most powerful faces at the centre of the current circus of death. It’s easy to hate an apparently vulgar old billionaire who effects dodderiness when it suits him, and yet rules one of the biggest media empires the world has ever seen, so can’t actually be that doddery. It’s just as easy to hate a jumped-up, Harvard-educated corporate automaton and heir, who speaks in a monotonous American accent and exclusively in legalese. And it’s even feasible to hate the woman who launched the “name and shame” campaign, even if that was the only alarmist stunt Rebekah Wade/Brooks ever pulled while editing a tabloid newspaper. They all claim to have been clueless, which is a counter-intuitive quality for chief executives of multi-million-dollar companies to show off about, when you think about it. I rather expect my bosses to know everything.

And when key News Of The World shopfloor whistleblower, Sean Hoare, is found dead – a death that is without suspicion in the same way that David Kelly’s was – it’s easy to feel a certain degree of sympathy for the reporters who were the last contact between their newspaper and a revolving cartel of seedy private investigators with loose morals and a tendency to go through bins. Hoare said that he and other reporters endured a climate of fear: get the story or else. The blame must go to the top. The bankers played with our money. The media moguls play with our heads.

But let us not think ourselves morally superior to all this. Or to absent ourselves from the morass. We’re all responsible for the culture that took us to this particular brink … unless you have actually ignored celebrity tittle-tattle since 1969 when Murdoch’s brand of lowest-common-denominator sensation began (“HORSE DOPE SENSATION”). I have never really been a tabloid reader in adult life. My Nan used to bring the Sun round our house on a Thursday, and as a teenager on the cusp of discovering sexism and Labour party politics, I used to flick through it for easy, “ironic” entertainment and funny things to cut out and stick in my diary with Pritt, like frames from the cartoonishly erotic Axa comic strip, and disembodied soaraway headlines. I would soon be under the Guardian‘s spell, once I got to college.

Ironically – and I don’t mean “with irony” – I bought the Sun pretty much every week for three years between 2008 and 2011 so that Richard Herring and I would have something topical to make jokes about on our weekly podcast. We also bought the Mail, but mocked both for their poisonous and laughable idiocy, and in our own way, I hope, atoned for the 20p and 50p we paid out for those rags. But I’ve also bought the Sunday Times for my own use on a Sunday because I like the Culture section, and on occasion the Saturday Times, because I like the books section (which I’ve sporadically written for), so I’m in trouble when it comes to the absolutist stance of the cancel-your-Sky-subscription lobby – most of whom, I fancy, pay to see films made by the Murdoch-owned 20th Century Fox, or buy books published by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins, or watch ITV, in which Murdoch has a 7.5% stake, or watch the Murdoch-owned National Geographic via another satellite provider. (And if they don’t, I congratulate them. Truly. I avoided Starbucks for years after reading No Logo, and then I read that Naomi Klein occasionally uses Starbucks if it’s the only coffee outlet available, say, at an airport, so I calmed down.)

It’s been a hell of a week for the top brass at News International and News Corp. The latter’s bid to buy the remaining 61% of the shares in BSkyB is dust. Execs including Brooks, Andy Coulson, Les Hinton and Neil Wallis, have either resigned and gone home, or resigned and then been arrested and then been released and gone home. The toppermost of the top brass have been called before a Parliamentary select committee, beamed all around the world, there to squirm beneath the desk, get the words “humble” and “humbling” mixed up, dish out platitudes and apologies and denials in the same voice, and in one soaraway instance, almost get some shaving foam on them. (All the while, the Metropolitan police, who appear to have been up to their necks in News International appeasement, are shedding chiefs by the day, to the point that – gasp! – a woman might have to be drafted in to save them.)

It’s been gripping telly, and although the newspapers have been perhaps unnaturally biased towards coverage and analysis of just the one story while the Eurozone and the United States have been on the brink of economic collapse, again, it’s been engrossing to read. It’s ironic that the news is the news, and that the news has drawn people back to the news, whether on the news channels, one of which is 39% owned by News Corp, or in the newspapers. I don’t usually like to see 80-year-olds being humiliated on television, but I do like seeing the most powerful people on the planet humiliated, so I didn’t stay conflicted for too long on Tuesday. And as someone who also bangs tables when he’s making a point, I even sympathised when Murdoch Sr was told by his wife to sit on his wrinkled hands.

But we are all to blame, as I say. The celebrity culture, whereby fame can be achieved by selling a story, or appearing on a stupid reality show, or having breasts, makes mugs of us all. Even looking at the headlines of the Sunday tabloids while picking up our Observer – just to see, ha ha, what they’re frothing about this week, oh, it’s Cheryl Cole – makes us complicit, even if we don’t hand money over the counter. So let’s not be too smug here, unless we are truly without sin. I will say this: Piers Morgan must be squeaky clean if he’s prepared to challenge Louise Mensch the way he did on CNN on Tuesday night after she collated two passages from his book The Insider and made five, using Parliamentary privilege as a fig leaf for basically accusing him of phone-hacking during the hearing, which he denies.

Equally, you have to hope that nowhere down the line has anybody working for the Guardian done a dirty deal in an alley to get information at any point, otherwise its overarching smugness might too turn to albumen. (You have to hope that there are some good guys somewhere on Fleet Street.)

Rupert Murdoch’s empire seems unlikely to strike back. If it turns out that victims of 9/11 were hacked, then it gets really nasty for him back home, as the Americans done like it up ’em, and I think I’m right in saying that corporate justice is much more bullish over there. We’re giving Man and Boy a fair old roasting over here, even though the parent company is based in the US, and he’s not from round these parts. Maybe a world where media empires don’t exist would be a better one, although the one I do a lot of my work for, the BBC, is a global force to be reckoned with, and that’s why the rest of the media are so enthusiastic about bringing it down. (The deal the government did in 2010 after which the licence fee was frozen, necessitating redundancies and property sell-offs and the threat to bring back the testcard, was done, we must now assume, at a time when News International ran the country. The NUJ are certainly asking the question: can we look at that again, in light of recent developments? If it’s a battle between the BBC and News Corp, I know whose side I’m on.) I don’t think David Cameron will be gone by Sunday, by the way. We shall see.

Sorry, going on a bit. But it’s a big story, and I’ve been too busy to tackle it this week. Some once powerful men and at least one woman might go to prison over this. The Met are going to have to clean up their own back Yard. News Corp will surely sell News International, and another publisher will be delighted to buy the Sun at a knockdown price, which remains a very popular newspaper, and the Times, whose heritage and reputation cannot be knocked up overnight (but which doesn’t make any money, and whose courageous paywall has yet to create a domino effect through the British newspaper industry). But will “the culture” look any different when the fuss has died down? We live in a post-News Of The World world. But its readers seem to have simply migrated to the Star and the Sunday Mirror and the People, because millions of British people wish to be entertained and titillated on a Sunday. And a Monday. And a Tuesday.

Like boxing, if you ban stupidity, it will only go underground. And anyway, isn’t Google far more sinister and powerful than News Corp? Discuss.