The rock group, the minister and the naked truth

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF THE first stories I ever wrote in a magazine was an interview with the heavy metal band Motley Crue. It was 1986, and I was still a student; I travelled to Newcastle to spend a day with the band, hoping I could find something to say about their notorious wild antics. I was apprehensive because, of all the possible permutations, only two things would be printable: that Motley Crue were, indeed, the wild men of rock, or that they were the opposite - quiet, shy, bookish. I didn't know which would make the better story. Also, before I had even arrived at the hotel, I had begun to understand the troubled relationship between journalism and the truth.

As we drank through the afternoon - and my God, they drank a lot, these long-haired tattooed Americans in their late twenties - I realised that the bookish angle was slipping away from me; all I could hope for was some comprehensive act of wildness, something better than just a bit of drunken cursing in the Gosforth Park hotel. And later, hunched on a chair outside the band's dressing-room in the Newcastle City Hall, I got it. The dressing- room door opened, and the drummer, Tommy - a huge, skinny man who later married one of the actresses from Dynasty - ran towards me, naked except for a huge attachment on his penis.

His penis? These words, italics included, can be part of my first paragraph, I remember thinking. He'd customised his penis extension by filling a stocking and binding it around his penis - his penis? - with an elastic band. Howling, he danced around me, and then put on the tape of AC/DC's Highway to Hell.

Later, over my typewriter, I really let Motley Crue have it - I wrote about the drinking, the penis extension, the pornographic pictures in the dressing-room, what happened with the girls at the party after the concert. I did the 'wild men of rock' expose. I really laid into them. 'Oh,' the publicist told me later, 'the band loved your story. They thought it was really funny.'

Funny, yes. But did it have anything to do with the truth? The journalist soon learns that the only way to get the truth is to sneak up on it, possibly using a long-lens camera or bugging device. And when you find the truth, nobody knows what to do about it; people will bully you into not using it or threaten legislation. In fact, people don't exactly want the truth; what they want is a good story, or at least a story that fits in with everybody's needs. Last year, at the Conservative Party conference, I interviewed a Cabinet minister in the Grand Hotel in Brighton. I asked him what he thought of John Major's speech. He looked at me, and raised his eyebrows in a slightly mischievous way, and said: 'Frankly, I think it had balls.' He bunched his fist for emphasis. Then he said: 'I think he came across as John Bloke from next door.' I laughed, then took out my notebook.

'What are you doing?'

'Just . . . taking a few notes . . .'

'But, you can't do that.'

'What?'

'It's unethical. You can't just . . . if I'd known you were going to quote me, I'd have said something else.'

'Really? I thought . . .'

'That's unethical. You're being unethical. I'm having lunch with your editor next week, and I'll tell him about this. I don't want to see any of this in print.'

But I had the quote, the truth. And what was the truth? It wasn't much, really - that a member of the Cabinet uses raunchy language, also that he, in his twinkling, eyebrow- raising way, is aware of the way the Prime Minister uses his humble background as a political tool.

Actually, the most significant thing about it was that it was a total misjudgement, or a lie; Major's speech didn't have balls at all - it was the most weaselly, issue-dodging bit of rhetoric you've ever heard. I didn't quote the man by name, though, for another reason - because of my colleagues. Political journalism, like every kind of journalism, is a delicate eco-system - those who have information foster a symbiotic relationship with those who print it. In the end, it's not in your interest to let the side down. There is a code of conduct, a language of nods and winks, a whole part of the world which is 'off the record'. Which has very little to do with truth.

Should journalists be threatened with new criminal offences prosecuting them for trespassing on private property, bugging private conversations and taking photographs of people sitting in their gardens with their clothes off? If this happens, it will close off the last few avenues to the possibility of telling the truth; the only chinks in the wall separating journalists from the real world will have been blocked off. And then the symbiotic relationship between the press and the world the press covers will be complete. As it is, it's getting harder and harder to find an event of any significance that is not a press-conference in disguise. The rot started as soon as newspapers began to appear at regular intervals regardless of what had happened in the world. That was when people started feeding the newspapers with stories. And now everybody does it, right up to the heir to the throne.

The only way we can get to the truth is by innovation - by staying ahead of the game. As Marshall McLuhan wrote: 'Any new means of moving information will alter any power structure whatever.' Just as it was the printing and transport of words that destroyed the old city-states of Europe, so the long-lens camera and the cellphone-scanner are threatening the monarchy today. Some people want cameras and bugs outlawed; no doubt there were people who wanted to kill the printing press in its cradle.

Incidentally, I ran into one of Motley Crue's publicists recently. How, I wondered, had the band fared after six years of heavy drinking and dancing around wearing penis extensions? The publicist frowned. 'They've been teetotal vegetarians for ages,' he said.

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