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.

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