Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Questions we never thought they'd ask

There's a documentary a week at the moment exposing the staggering extent of Rupert Murdoch's hold on the Establishment.

And they'll continue as more comes out and lies become omissions and omissions become confessions.

Last night's Dispatches corralled a handful of hacks, PRs and coppers for whom these will become a reguar gig, and useful one for those who've lost their jobs.

We were reminded of what we've always known: that a Blair government built on spin needed News International to get elected, what we suspected - that he needed the nod from Murdoch before invading Iraq - and what only tabloid insiders would know - that the News of the World features desk had shedloads to spend on stories. Although with £3 million plus to play with, I'd have expected them to find Lord Lucan, Martin Bormann and Madeleine McCann, not a few pantsdown "exposes".

And there was the blatanly obvious. Cameron's decision to hire Coulson was in hindight disastrous, but at the time, tactically inspired.

But the most interesting thing to come from this has been the dawning realisation of those involved that the penny has finally dropped.

When Coulson and Brooks sat before the Select Committee eagerly talking over each other, at pains to "admit" they did regularly pay coppers for info, they felt securely ringfenced enough to brazen it out like Guantanamo interrogators fessing up; "how do you think we cracked it?" safe in the knowledge that thwarting an attack on the White House was all the justification needed.

How times change - and how many other such confessions will come back to haunt?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Who selected this lot?

I can say one thing for the select committee quizzing the Murdochs yesterday: I wouldn’t have them on my investigative team.

With the exception of the tenacious Louise Mensch, their questioning wouldn’t be up to producing a showbiz nib, let alone a decent splash.

Murdoch junior, as tough a corporate pugilist as you’ll find, barely felt as much as a glancing blow and Murdoch senior’s long pauses and monosyllabic responses appeared something out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, halting any cross examination in its tracks.

It was much the same for Rebekah Brooks whose air of innocence must seem bizarrely at odds with the feisty gung-ho “get me that story at all costs” persona familiar to former staffers such as Paul McMullan who told Newsnight later of how her “fixed stare” would leave him in no doubt about what was wanted. I know he's no friend of Brooks but anyone who has any experience of tabloid newsrooms, would have appreciated the reality check.

Earlier, Sky News viewers had heard Nick Ferrari exonerating Murdoch because his media empire was “twice that of the Navy” so how could the Admiral be blamed for a faux pas by the captain of a tugboat?

That’s easy Nick, if the Admiral is prone to making long-distance Saturday night calls to said captain to ask “so, what’s going on?” And, said Admiral began life, not at some posh military academy but on the docks, clawed his way up and is known to be as straight-talking as any red-necked deck-hand.

Anyone who’se edited under Murdoch will tell you he’s as hands-on as they come. Just as anyone who’s reported to a tabloid editor will tell you, they want details - all the details - and anyone who’s been an editor will tell you, you want details – all the details.

Back to Newsnight. I found myself growing tired of former Screws Politico David Wooding banging on from the high ground about how he’d never hack a phone. I haven’t seen David for years but the one I knew was as ethical as they come. But we’ve heard enough now. Any defence or justification in this climate is misplaced.

McMullan’s description of newsroom pressure was about right. What we’re seeing is a seismic culture change. A few months ago, media pub talk was one of bravado, of don’t let on but… Now, we’re running for cover, admitting excesses and adding … “but I never went that far!”

Tabloid newsrooms are macho places. The best yarns in the Cheshire Cheese, the Stab or the Popinjay were always about how the story was got, rather than what it said. Hacks retire and write books with a Raymond Chandler feel to them. Those who give the best talks at media colleges are the ones who include the naughty bits. Today, those smarting because their bosses turned down the MPs expenses scandal before the Telegraph went to town it were occasionally heard to snipe: “well, it was handed to them”.

Now and then, there’s a wake-up call. Papers stop buying pap pictures for a few weeks after a Princess dies with them in pursuit, or there’s brazen defiance when an MP caught with his trousers down tells us we’re “drinking in the last chance saloon”.

For the most part, the industry gets away with it. And it’s been largely for the greater good that it has. Ingenuity, guile and sometimes bare-faced cheek have been key to keeping society on

Had it not been for the solid, justifiable investigation of the type employed by Nick Davies and the Guardian, coppers would still be collecting their brown envelopes and Royal newlyweds wouldn’t be able to phone home in privacy.

Yesterday, I wrote how I’d finally overcome my irritation at the use of “gate” at the end of every scandal story. Happily, that was endorsed by a Watergate legend when Carl Bernstein told how he used to wince every time it was used by a Murdoch title.

He too has now changed his mind, describing it as the biggest media event in history.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Britain's Watergate? More like Floodgate

Max Hastings used to have a hobbyhorse or two, such as banning the word gay and announcing one day that Celebrity was too trite for pages of the Daily Telegraph.

And I well recall one of his forays into the newsroom in which he told us to stop using the suffix Gate when referring to scandals.

It was sometime around Squidgygate, or was it Camillagate? Anyway, it was a decision one I wholeheartedly agreed with. Until now.

Hack-gate, Wapping-gate, Murdoch-gate Screws-gate don't really trip off the tongue as easily as "I knew nothing about it, guv". But if ever a topic were more suited, it’s this.

Coppers who turn a blind eye, MPs who fiddle their eccies probing shady hacks who give bungs to private dicks in seedy diners while their bosses destroy evidence - all of which threatens to unseat the Citizen Kane of our time - and all of which leads right to the steps of 10 Downing Street?

It's the most significant turning point in modern media history and, as we pause for breath ahead of the next revelation, it begs only one serious question; Who will play Rupert Murdoch in the film?

Rebekah Brooks, if she still has any clout, would probably plump for Nicole Kidman and James Murdoch wouldn't be at all hacked off at Matt Damon, such is notoriety. And there’d probably even be a cameo role of so for Brooks’ ex, Ross Kemp alongside David Jason and George Cole, in the bung scenes. Andy Coulson won’t thank me for choosing Dwight Schrute of the American Office as him, Ed Miliband will find little Comfort in who I have for him, although Hugh Grant can play himself.

As for the the Great Man himself. Not looking his best these days. Nuff said.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Banish hacking – but don’t move the goalposts

I enjoyed Hugh Grant’s appearance on Question Time last week as he was rolled out as the most eloquent celebrity hackee to stick the boot into News International.

What earned him even more brownie points was the way he shrugged off ex-Sun columnist John Gaunt’s ludicrous side-swipe in referring referred to an embarrassing incident long ago when Grant found himself in the papers for a personal faux pas.

But he missed the point entirely when he told Newsnight viewers a couple of nights later that stories about the personal lives of the likes of Ryan Giggs were not in the public interest.

They absolutely are. Zillion-pound-a-week footballers and their pecadillos are potentially one of the real victors of the NoW demise.

With serious debate now on the cards about what (ethical) red tops should and shouldn’t get away with, let’s not lose sight of what does actually constitute fair game.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

When newsrooms die, the spirit does not

Tonight's farewell shift at the News of The World will be like no other.

Too many journalists have experienced such last nights but there's normally something of a build-up before the last rites. Falling circulations, takeover speculation, a shift in ownership – all of which staff read about in the Media Guardian before it makes the newsroom noticeboards.

Even when those on days off get the dreaded call at home and word spreads across the floor that “an announcement” is about to be made, there's always a sense of inevitability mixed with that of impending loss.

Final editions can engender a tremendous sense of solidarity and pledges for annual reunions, even as they work in split-screen mode with one eye on the job ads. But whatever fallout any of those working into the night tonight expected from the hacking scandal, the closure of one of the world's leading newspapers was not one of them.

(Claims that the 'brand' had been irreperably damaged, leaving closure as the only option, are, to use tabloid expletives, b*****ks, by the way. And that's understating it).

What we'll see on the stands tomorrow will be a classic of its day. If I know Colin Myler as well as I think I do, he'll produce a paper worthy of a curtain call, and one worth bringing to that first reuinon. There'll be no "splash", just a no-nonsense leader and a historical retrospective on the days when the management knew what they were doing.

Breaking news: I'm writing this in a waiting room of a car dealership next door to the now infamous MacDonalds restaurant in Wapping where all those money exchanges were said to have taken place. The only coppers in sight are the ones clanking around in the charity box on the counter.