Media: The Neil Report - The best kept secrets in newspapers

How do the proprietors of the newspapers that are guilty of the most blatant press intrusion manage to keep their own private affairs under wraps?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The strange silence of the British press in its non-coverage of the newly intriguing private life of Rupert Murdoch has caused commentators to speculate about a secret newspaper proprietors' agreement not to wash each other's dirty linen in public.

A shock separation after over three decades of apparently stable marriage, shacking up with a smart thirtysomething employee from China, a protracted and expensive divorce, the prospect of wedding bells before the end of the year and even talk of a Murdoch baby - these are the sort of private shenanigans among the rich and famous that would normally have the tabloids at their most intrusive and expansive.

Even the broadsheets could be expected to get in on the act, under the guise of what it all means for Murdoch's business empire, especially how it complicates his desire to create a family dynasty. It might be unrealistic to expect the man's own papers to carry much about it (few editors are that brave - or foolhardy) but surely his rivals would have a field day.

Yet there has been no more than a few passing paragraphs in the non-Murdoch papers. We know little about the cause of the marriage breakdown, the details of the divorce proceedings - and next to nothing about the post- divorce state of Anna Murdoch or his paramour-turned- fiancee, Wendy Deng (bar an interesting but little-read piece in Punch, which may or may not have been accurate). It is possible to argue that these are private, often painful, matters which do not deserve much of a public airing (and I would agree). But not if you own the News of the World or The Sun.

The Daily Telegraph, which rarely misses a chance to have a go at his business dealings, has stayed strangely aloof from the fallout from his marital troubles. The Daily Mail, which normally devotes page after page to the foibles of the rich and powerful, has barely touched the matter. The baser tabloids, which specialise in exposing the extra-marital activities of even the most minor media celebrities, have ignored the goings-on of the most powerful media baron in the world.

We know that Murdoch spoke to the proprietors of the Mail and Telegraph himself to counsel against the sort of unseemly coverage of his private life that his own papers dish out daily to less fortunate souls. Other newspaper groups did not need him to lean on them. They simply bowed to that most insidious of Fleet Street phenomena: self-censorship.

There should be no mystery about the lack of column inches: there is indeed an informal proprietors' old-boy network which stops them from dishing the dirt on each other. My only surprise is that supposedly well- informed press commentators are surprised it exists. I cannot be the only former editor to have first-hand knowledge of it.

When I was at The Sunday Times I received an extensive dossier about Lord Rothermere's wife, the flamboyant society lady nicknamed Bubbles who had recently died in what some said were mysterious circumstances. The documents and pictures detailed her strange obsession with a so-called "mystic" who lived in a council house in Peckham. It was claimed that she consulted this woman on everything and it was said she was one of the last people Bubbles communicated with before her sad and premature death.

It was an intriguing tale. But "The society lady and council-house mystic" seemed to belong more in The Sun than The Sunday Times. I passed the dossier to the then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie. But nothing appeared. I learned later that Murdoch had given instructions not to publish the story: proprietor did not eat proprietor.

Murdoch did not have to wait for Ms Deng to come along to reap his reward. When the Daily Mail serialised my autobiography, Full Disclosure, the extract on Murdoch was strangely sanitised. Moreover, though the paper had paid an extravagant sum for the extracts, it published them in a curiously half-hearted fashion. There was no pre-publication promotion. Indeed, even at 7pm on the night before it was eventually scheduled for publication, the duty editor could not tell me that it would definitely begin the next day.

It did. But without even a small billing on page one or news story "write off" to draw readers' attention to the serialisation of a book that was already causing controversy elsewhere in the media about what it had to say about Murdoch. BBC's Today programme even tracked me down in the Governor's office in Hong Kong to discuss it live on air. But still the Mail continued its serialisation sotto voce.

I was on the wrong end of the unwritten understanding that proprietors do not make disclosures (especially not Full Disclosures) about other proprietors. I suspect that the late Lord Rothermere was unhappy that the Mail was serialising my book at all, given its revelations about Murdoch. But the editor had done the deal and the editor, Paul Dacre, is an honourable chap. The compromise was to play down the most damning bits about a fellow proprietor.

Proprietor-to-proprietor protection, however, does not necessarily extend to financial matters. Stephen Glover, who writes a must-read media column for The Spectator, has speculated that the old-boy agreement explains why Robert Maxwell's financial crookery was never fully exposed by the media. But that is not true: at one stage I had five writs outstanding against me and The Sunday Times for things we had written about Maxwell's business affairs. The failure to nail him was a journalistic failure to unearth enough damning facts - but not for want of trying.

There was one occasion, however, when Murdoch tried to dissuade me from spilling the beans about Maxwell. In 1988, with Murdoch's encouragement, I had secured the rights to Tom Bower's book exposing Maxwell. "I hope the book takes the lid off him," said Murdoch. As the date for the first extract drew closer, however, he started to complain.

"There's an unwritten agreement that proprietor does not attack proprietor," he revealed. "I hear the book's not very good anyway - and nobody's interested in Maxwell."

This change of heart had come about because Murdoch had started negotiations to distribute Maxwell's newspapers on the News International distribution system. The plan involved huge savings for both groups and Murdoch did not want to publish anything that would upset his rival.

I stood my ground and the extracts were published, helped by the fact that Maxwell overplayed his hand in his usual bombastic manner and boasted publicly that "his friend, Rupert" would stop the serialisation from appearing. But it had been a close call.

In the Maxwell case, it had been Murdoch's wallet talking rather than any desire to implement the informal non-publication agreement between proprietors. But the evidence that such an understanding does exist is overwhelming. It is not watertight but in general it does protect newspaper owners from intrusion into their own private lives. Given the cavalier attitude of most of the British press to other people's privacy, this must amount to one of the great hypocrisies of our age.

Of course, as the newly appointed publisher of Press Holdings (owners of Scotsman Publications and Sunday Business), it is a hypocrisy from which I now expect to benefit. Newspapers which do not respect my private life, however, have little fear of retaliation. "Rupe's new Manhattan love-nest" or "The private confessions of Wendy Deng" are headlines that do not quite seem to fit in the columns of The Scotsman or Sunday Business. Maybe we need to buy a tabloid, if only for defensive purposes.

Andrew Neil is publisher of `The Scotsman' and `Sunday Business'

Comments