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Michael Williams

I’ve seen the future and it’s crap

British Journalism Review
Vol. 22, No. 4, 2011, pages 37-45


Michael Williams is senior lecturer in print and online journalism and head of media ethics at the School of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Central Lancashire. He was formerly deputy editor of The Independent on Sunday.


Contents - Vol 22, No 4, 2011

Editorial - Tragicomedy of errors 3


Not finally... Subjective views on matters journalistic
Ben Fenton, Anna Botting, Michael Leapman - 5


Not the Leveson Report: The future of the press - 13
Donald Trelford, Geoffrey Bindman, Linda Christmas, Steve Hewlett, Tessa Jowell, Brian Hitchen, George Brock


Michael Williams - I've seen the future and it's crap 37

Noel Young - What if Milly had been found alive? 47

Anna Blundy - A job worth dying for? Oh, please 53

Adam Macqueen - Private Eye at 50: the forgotten editor 59

David Wilson, Diane Kemp, Nick Howe, Harriet Tolputt - Long arms'-length of the law 64

Daya Thussu - Where big money controls content - 73

James Rodgers - Piercing the fog of propaganda - 79

BOOK REVIEWS
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on Julian Petley and Robin Richardson 85
Margaret Allen on William Rees-Mogg 87
Brian Winston on Linda Stratman 89
Kim Fletcher on Peter Lee-Wright, Angela Phillips and Tamara Witschge 91
David Leigh on Heather Brooke 93


Quotes of the Quarter 1 - 36
Quotes of the Quarter 2 - 46
Quotes of the Quarter 3 - 95
Ten years ago - The way we were - 58
Paul Foot Award - 96


Cover pictures, from top, left to right: Donald Trelford, Geoffrey Bindman, Linda Christmas, Steve Hewlett, Tessa Jowell, Brian Hitchen*, George Brock
*David Levine Photography


 

Bullying news editors were the precursors of phone hacking and other journalistic excesses, claims an executive turned media academic


“Mounce, the Pictures Editor, was busy putting the fear of God into his staff. He had plenty of the fear of God to hand, but just at present only one member of his staff to put it into, a small meek photographer called Lovebold. Mounce was looking at a sheaf of prints which Lovebold had just brought down from the darkroom.
‘What’s all this crap supposed to be?’ he asked insultingly.
‘I thought it was the sort of crap you wanted,’ said Lovebold.
‘Well, it’s crap.’
‘I thought we were supposed to be taking this sort of crap.’
‘It’s still crap’.”

We all know them. The bullying warrant officers and trumped-up subalterns of the newsroom, whose legends may have mellowed over time but whose regimens were no less brutal for all that. The horrible Reg Mounce was created by Michael Frayn in his 1967 novel Towards the End of the Morning, based on his period working at The Observer, but the real newsroom monsters are often even scarier than their fictional counterparts. The Daily Mail’s venerable Ann Leslie, who spent a fearless career covering wars around the world, honed her courage in the offices of the Daily Express in Manchester, where she learned “how to see off assorted sexist bullying men”, according to her autobiography, Killing My Own Snakes. “Nothing in my earlier life had equipped me for working for such a man” as her “irascible Scot” news editor Tom Campbell. “I was everything he hated: young, a woman, privately educated and worst of all, someone from the south of England,” she wrote.

I faced my own nemesis in the terrifying form of Liverpool Echo news editor (and later editor) George Cregeen, who tried to fire me because he did not want “commies” like me on his paper. The indictment was based on the mere fact that I happened to be friends with Jon Snow, my student journalist contemporary at Liverpool University, who had just been sent down for his part in a protest against a visit by a member of the Royal Family. Nor did Cregeen reserve his terror tactics just for me. Fellow trainee John Sergeant, who went on to become one of the toughest political correspondents in broadcasting, was so affected by Cregeen that he made him one of the bad guys in his autobiography, Give Me Ten Seconds.

And then there was Andy Coulson. Although the former News of the World editor spent his brief tenure at No. 10 swanning around in smooth Downing Street-issue suits, trying to look unflappable and as unlike Alastair Campbell as possible, he already had a place assured in the pantheon of newsroom bullies. In November 2009, before the phone-hacking scandal was unpacked in its full ghastliness, an employment tribunal upheld a claim of unfair dismissal by former News of the World sports writer Matt Driscoll, citing “bullying behaviour” and singling out Coulson for making “bullying” remarks in an email to Driscoll. Driscoll was awarded almost £800,000 – the highest-ever payout of its kind in the media – and said: “If I were him [Coulson], I would find it very hard to look in the mirror.”


I, too, was starting to worry about me

But bullying, it transpired, was merely part of it. By the summer of 2011, as a shocked nation took in the details of the Milly Dowler phone hack, I, too, was beginning to wonder about the chastened individual staring back at me from beneath the shaving foam in the mornings. Like Coulson, I had been one of Rupert Murdoch’s long-serving senior news executives in the post- Wapping years, and it was a chance lunch with one of my senior colleagues on the Murdoch London broadsheets that made me think again. This was a man who was once so “on the Murdoch message” that he dismissed any investigation into child labour sweatshops I had produced with the comment: “Well, what’s wrong? It’s the market isn’t it?”

“I now think I was in denial,” he told me later, with a deep sigh. I had never thought of it in quite that way. The queasy feeling in my stomach was nothing to do with the quality of the steak and kidney pudding at the Garrick Club. As the truth about some of Murdoch’s news operations – hacking, blagging, payment to police and worse – was exposed in all its awfulness, my friend articulated something that many of us News Corp executives really suspected but could never quite bring ourselves to admit.

My time as head of news, and subsequently head of features at the Murdoch Sunday Times through the late 1980s and early 1990s, was a relative age of innocence compared with the horrors of recent times. Yet this was the period in which the seeds of the disaster that is now engulfing News Corporation were planted. News journalism is a complex and often chaotic cocktail of adrenaline, risk-taking, egotism and competitiveness. Most of the time it is underpinned by a genuine quest for the truth and a sense of decency, however confused it might seem. But the Murdoch news machine is fuelled by more toxic and combustible ingredients – a culture of fear, unquestioning subservience to the media tycoon’s political and business interests, and a willingness to push the envelope until it falls off the table. As one former News of the World editor used to advise his staff: “Take the story to breaking point and then ratchet it back a notch.” Unfortunately, many journalists at Wapping conveniently forgot about the last bit as they got carried away in the Wild West atmosphere.

Unscrupulous though his methods were, I know precisely what the phone-hacking private detective Glenn Mulcaire meant when he told The Guardian that his employers exerted “relentless pressure” and “constant demand for results”. “I knew,” he said, “what we did pushed the limits ethically.” It was precisely this attitude that impelled many people inside Wapping to do dangerous things – especially in the atmosphere of mass hysteria that followed the 1986 dispute. Many of the stormtroopers who cut their teeth in the years following Fortress Wapping were the same people who went on to high executive positions as phone hacking clattered on unfettered.

Was there any phone hacking on my watch? I would aspire to say no. It was policy that all reporters were routinely interrogated on their sources. Nevertheless – feeble though it may sound – I could not present myself to Lord Justice Leveson and swear, hand on heart, there was none. As former People editor – and now editor of this journal – Bill Hagerty pointed out recently, editors do not necessarily know everything. At the very least there was a great deal of reckless risk-taking – not exactly discouraged by the News International corporate ethos. I summarily dismissed a reporter who was caught trying to cover his mistakes by offering a financial bribe to the staff in the newspaper computer room to falsify his copy (something he has never subsequently denied). Shortly afterwards he went seamlessly on to a senior job at our sister paper, the News of the World, where his “scoops” were celebrated. This autumn he was re-hired by The Sunday Times as an “undercover reporter”. All corporate memory of scandal had been erased.

With Lord Leveson’s inquiry now heading under full sail into 2012, News Corp executives and PRs remain busy trying to close down the idea of “contamination” inside the company and to hold the line that the News of the World was a “rogue” newspaper – one rotten apple in the barrel. But should anyone be surprised that the spores of the rot could have spread, since Wapping (and its swish “son of Wapping” offices over the road from the old plant), has always been a kind of journalistic factory farm. Swapping executives, stories and news values between the Wapping titles was commonplace – and still is. The long-standing former managing editor of The Sunday Times, who knows the organisation inside out, was recently transferred to stand guard against anything nasty leaching from The Sun.And in the swish new canteen, senior execs from The Sun and the Thunderer can often be found masticating together over the “healthy eating” menu.


Interference didn’t need to happen too often

I vividly recall one Saturday night passing Rupert on the way into the editor’s office with a clutch of page proofs direct from the composing room. “Why haven’t you put that story on page one?” he growled while looking over my shoulder, referring to an exclusive he had bought expensively for the News of the World and which I had relegated to The Sunday Times’s page 2. Such direct interference didn’t happen very often. But it didn’t need to – the reality was far more subtle. Although the boss’s words may have passed muster with the News Corp lawyers, it was plainly nonsense when Rupert told a Commons select this summer that he didn’t interfere with his editors. As Harold Evans writes in a new introduction to his book Good Times, Bad Times: “In all Murdoch’s far flung enterprises, the question is not whether this or that is a good idea but ‘What will Rupert think?’ He doesn’t have to give direct orders. His executives act like courtiers, working towards what they perceive to be his wishes or might be construed as his wishes.”

Maybe I am guilty, too. I was required, as news editor, to use the services of a “media correspondent” hand-picked by Rupert, whose main function, it seemed to me, was studying his proprietor’s utterances about BSkyB, placing stories attacking the broadcasting unions and rubbishing the BBC. On one occasion the Old Man swept into the office, calling all his senior executives up to the boardroom. “Why do you guys ignore the sports pages at the back of the paper?” he rasped, before striding out past the barbed wire to his limousine. Some thought the he had taken leave of his senses, but the coded message was:, “I’m about to launch Sky Sports and make bloody sure you get it on the front pages.” On other occasions he would have his senior staff delivered by chauffeur to his London home, or that of his chief executive, where he would declaim his prejudices about the politicians or businessmen who seemed not to fit in with commercial aspirations of the company. No one dared to dissent in case they fell out of favour – though one worse-for-wear political journalist did just that when he dropped a glass of red wine on the expensive white silk carpet.

More potent still were Rupert’s world conferences, held for a chosen few executives around the globe. I had been invited to his bash in Aspen, Colorado, where we were hosted at Rupert’s lovely home on the side of the Aspen Mountain. (Tony Blair famously attended an ensuing one in Hayman Island, Australia.) Trays of multi-coloured caviar for the hors d’oeuvres stretched as far as the eye could see, while Rupert showed off a bizarrelooking swimming pool that ran like a canal through the reception rooms of the house. “Lachlan uses it to practise his strokes,” Dad told us proudly. But what he didn’t tell us was that there would be a rapporteur on every table that night, secretly relaying the guests’ off-the-cuff remarks back to the boss.

The “Murdochisation” of the press, as Carl Bernstein has called it, rapidly spread beyond News International, as a diaspora of Rupert’s loyal executives moved into positions of power in other parts of the media. Admiration for the man rarely seems to dim, even among those he has brutally fired from their jobs. I recall one hard-bitten Aussie manager, who had come over in the first wave of loyalists from the old country to install the Wapping plant, close to tears as he struggled for the reasons for his inexplicable dismissal. Yet he still would not say a word against his boss.

More insidious were those who went on to emulate the style of their erstwhile proprietor in other organisations. Shortly after I moved from my job at The Sunday Times to become executive editor of The Independent, the management of that newspaper was assumed by David Montgomery, then chief executive of the Mirror Group, which had come to own a 50 per cent share in the paper. “Monty”, who had edited two Murdoch papers – Today and the News of the World – worshipped at the Murdoch shrine and wasted no time outflanking his former proprietor in the scale of interference with his editors, or in trying to bend The Independent into the Mirror Group’s way of thinking. The principled Ian Hargreaves, who had arrived from the gentler shores of the BBC and the FT, was soon out of the revolving door. Even more misery was heaped on hapless editor Andrew Marr, who on the day before a redesign of the paper was due to be unveiled was given an ultimatum by Montgomery: sack 20 more staff or the redesign gets canned. (I recall the miseries deliberating with the anguished Marr when he called a meeting of senior colleagues in a Canary Wharf bar ironically called The First Edition. To pile on the agony, the credit card offered to pay the bill was rejected.)

Was it all a bad dream? Are Hackgate and Murdochism just additional manifestations of what has always been part of the rough and tumble of newspaper life, essentially no different from the days when M’Lords Copper and Beaverbrook called the shots and Gauleiters called Reg, Tom and George ruled the newsrooms? Certainly many seem to think little has changed, including the veteran Sun columnist and Murdoch trusty Trevor Kavanagh, who told a Leveson Inquiry seminar in October that the idea of today’s reporters being forced to make the facts fit the story in pursuit of profit was “a grotesque caricature of the news world I have known for 50 years”.


Journalistic landscape is less principled

But my students, setting out on their careers in journalism, are less in thrall to Murdochism than is Kavanagh, and tell a different story. At Britain’s biggest and oldest journalism school at the University of Central Lancashire we could hardly be accused of sending out our graduates wide-eyed and unprepared, as any of our hard-nosed alumni – to be found in various senior positions across the media – will vouch. Yet many report back on an altered journalistic landscape – certainly less principled than the one I encountered when I began my own Fleet Street career on the Thomson-owned Times in the 1970s. From the regional papers, those once great powerhouses of civic discourse, through TV and radio, which once believed in community as much as celebrity, to the beleaguered national press, the story is the same.

The pressure is to produce cheap, uncontroversial stories full of material that commercial managers think readers want to hear, often divorced from local context as the regional newspapers move to centralised production at their “print centres”. The common denominator is a low-grade package of TV, “lifestyle” and celebrity coverage and heavy reliance on press releases which are frequently published verbatim and unchecked. (I know this first hand because I have read my own words, unaltered from those I wrote in my book publisher’s press releases, in newspapers where no reporter has lifted the telephone to talk to me.) These imperatives are quite different from those that drove old-school news editors, whose motives could be summed up as “squeezing the bollocks of the opposition” by getting better stories first.

These days, young journalists who thought they might occasionally leave the office to talk to real people are disappointed to find themselves shackled to their computers, where they recycle stories and quotes off the internet like grey water in a sewage plant. The pressures are even worse in online news organisations and on websites. In some cases, former students tell me, their stories and performance are measured by the number of “hits” they get on Google. At Bloomberg, aspiring student entrants have been horrified to find another stick – the speed at which stories are filed ahead of rival agencies (often rated in nano seconds) is counted in your overall performance at the world’s most powerful business data machine. How would you like to take your bullying – from Reg Mounce, or from an algorithm that sits on a corporate desktop?

The underlying mantra, whose utterance is unspoken but which is feared by every young journalist these days, is: “There are plenty more where you came from.” In other words, perform or lose your job in a climate where pay is shrinking and short-term contracts have replaced proper employment. One of my former female postgraduates, working for a local newspaper in Birmingham, told me she had been made to dress up and do “ridiculous poses” for a photographer. “I told him to sod off, but I imagine there are some who wouldn’t have the courage to do that because they are petrified of getting fired.” Worse, she was sent to write a story about a young girl with severe behavioural problems, who needed cushioning on her bedroom walls to deal with her tantrums. She told me: “I spent a whole afternoon interviewing her mother and convincing her to do the story to raise awareness of the condition. In the conversation, the mother had said the girl could be a bit like Jekyll and Hyde. Next day it was all over the news with the headline, ‘The Jekyll and Hyde girl’. The mother was distraught.” Worse, the story was then republished in a magazine with the headline “Girl in a padded cell”. “The mother was convinced I had stabbed her in the back. She was such a lovely woman and I felt so awful.”

More traumatised still was another of my postgrads, a high-flyer who was fast-tracked straight off my course to a coveted staff job on the News of the World. She could hardly have been accused of being naïve – both her parents worked in newspapers and her father was a much admired veteran national papers executive – but what she found when she entered employment was uncomfortable even to her Dad, who knew a bit about tabloid journalism. In his day popular journalism might have been “cheeky” and sometimes macho, but rarely unprincipled. The former student told me: “I felt really unhappy about doing stories that weren’t really other people’s business. X Factor was an absolute nightmare. You’d have to go into these people’s Facebook accounts. They were absolute nobodies but you had to find out whether they were on drugs. You had to diss their best friends, and pay other friends for info. People would do anything for a couple of hundred quid. You’d bring out the worst in everyone. I followed up a woman from a TV programme called Misbehaving Mumswho was smoking during her pregnancy because she believed, among other things, her baby would be smaller and thus the delivery would be easier. She wasn’t very bright, but I needed to get the story. It was like taking candy from a baby. Next thing she was splashed all over the paper as ‘Britain’s worst mum’. I wonder what that baby will make of her mum’s story when she Googles it in a few years? The mum wasn’t really the monster the paper made her out to be. She was a nice girl who really thought she was doing the best for her kid. But I had to make her out to be a monster and a benefit scrounger.”


It’s a double whammy

In the new Murdochised world, newspapers and their staffs are galaxies away from the days when top-hatted owners would sit chomping cigars in their clubs trying to manipulate public opinion. Chris Blackhurst, who has just assumed the editorship of The Independent after a long career on that newspaper as well as The Sunday Times, Daily Express and Evening Standard, told me: “The pressure’s much greater than it ever was. Of course there were eccentric whims of the proprietor and his well-connected friends or his political hobbies. But in the new climate for newspapers facing declining markets things are infinitely worse. It’s a double whammy. For the papers listed on the stock market, the circulation graph is going down when the shareholders want to see one that is going up. For the ones that are not listed, there’s an even bigger problem. If the proprietor is not buying influence for his bucks (and no proprietor is going to get near Downing Street for a very long time after the hacking scandal) the focus turns to the commercial side – where the paper is possibly losing tens of millions.

Add to that the downward spiral we are all familiar with – cuts to staff, lower levels of investment, perceived loss of value by readers and lower circulation, no wonder the pressure piles on those that remain. And it gets worse when there are certain factors outside your control. The ever-rising cost of newsprint, for example, seems likely to dominate balance sheets for a long time to come.”

Over the next few months many fine words will be uttered by a multitude of the great and the good as they parade in front of Lord Justice Leveson. But the real argument is not about hacking. The witness statements of the aggrieved, ranging from Hugh Grant and Abi Titmuss to Paul Gascoigne, will divert from the real issue of what has happened to our journalism. Hacking mobile phones in the world of WikiLeaks is about as naughty, outdated (and unsophisticated) as trying to tune into Radio Luxembourg on a crystal set under the bedclothes. Hackgate is nothing more than a transitory symptom arising from the toxins of Murdochisation which continue to pour dangerously through the veins of journalism.

On top of all this, there’s another less publicised set of pressures which may prove even more corrosive. Each year before they graduate I carry out a survey of my journalism BA students about what media they consume. I don’t pretend it’s in any way scientific, but the findings are instructive. This autumn I asked 150 students the question: “Who reads a national newspaper regularly?” Fewer than 10 per cent were prepared to say they did. Of this tiny group, almost all read either The Guardian or The Independent’s lightweight sister the i. But the liberal establishment can’t afford to be smug, either. Only about a third claim regularly to use the BBC (mostly the website) before returning to the comforts of Facebook, Twitter, goal.com, indierockcafe.com or whatever else students regard as their favoured alternative to what they generally see as stale and irrelevant mainstream media.

It’s a dismal statistic that the average British under-26-year-old is more likely to buy a bar of chocolate each day than a newspaper, plus many of our once great regional papers are in the emergency ward after overdosing on trivia, and national daily newspaper sales are plummeting dangerously with 20 per cent loss of circulation over a decade (and Sundays doing even worse). One of the refrains I repeatedly hear from my students in their first jobs is: “Why did you bother training us in reporting the courts or local council proceedings, since we’re hardly ever asked to do it?” As for learning about ethics, well, that was a waste of time, wasn’t it? So what of the post-Leveson future? Much as we might hope for change, it is tempting to echo the words of Reg Mounce. “Crap,” as he might have said. “All crap.”