Why journalists disgust me
In his last major article, the outspoken MP for Kensington and Chelsea takes on the press: `It is impossible to overestimate the level of crude vindictiveness that reporters apply'
Thursday 09 September 1999
These are not characteristics inseparably associated with discernment or a fastidious taste. And they are observable, it would seem, at practically every rank within the "profession". Reporters, the lowest form of pond life, are bullied, and their self-esteem reduced, by news editors. Editors are anxious about relations with their proprietors.
Periodically, editors may go through periods of congenial self-delusion, related to the amount of power that others believe them to dispose. All of them (with only one honourable exception known to me) must aspire to reincarnate Beaverbrook's verdict on Northcliffe in 1917:
"His influence, particularly when he was assaulting the public reputations of ministers, was something which had constantly to be reckoned with. Politicians, therefore, feared and hated him. (But)... He would use his papers to urge that they should be replaced and to prepare public opinion [my italics] for the reception of a new and determined Administration."
The late, long-time Daily Mail editor Sir David English, for example, strongly believed himself to be a "broker" of power and influence. And this was reinforced by politicians who sought his favour, and employees who were alarmed at the prospect of his disapproval. In fact, though, his impregnability was a myth. If his proprietor Lord Rothermere had got sick of him, English would have been belly-up in 24 hours.
More self-consciously insecure was Mr Max Hastings, who will end - one must assume - his career editing an evening tabloid in the Rothermere group [he is currently editor of the London Evening Standard]. Hastings displayed many of the appurtenances of a Conservative gentleman-politician, including a yo-ho-ho conversational style and a propensity to shoot (easy) birds on the weekend. But this did Hastings little good; and he compounded the error by espousing pinkish causes and increasing the price of the paper. Both of these men, in common with most of their editorial confreres, "flirted" from time to time with other proprietors, notably Mr Conrad Black of the Telegraph Group. But they avoided Mr Rupert Murdoch, whose brutal realism and capacity to equate personal quality and strategic objective made him awkward company.
Notwithstanding the self-regarding vortices of those "Award" ceremonies in which the different newspapers co-operate to give medals to one another's staff, the real criterion of survival, both personal and institutional, and subject to so intense and continuing a scrutiny as to qualify, in medical parlance, for status as an obsessional disorder, are the circulation figures. These are in the forefront of the minds of all those staff who attend each day's editorial conference at which the paper's attitude towards events and "personalities" is determined.
Much of this meeting is occupied, in its initial stages, by scrutiny of what "the competition" is doing. To have been scooped - by an eye-catching headline that may cause random bookstall visitors to prefer the look of, and to purchase, a rival - is thought to be deeply humiliating, and may lead instantly to recrimination. Sometimes it will provoke counter-scoop, or even "spoiling" (an attempt to anticipate what is coming next, and to both trail and degrade it). At the back of everyone's mind will be William Randolph Hearst's primary injunction: "Girls make news" - itself no more than a commercially grounded restatement of the first law of criminal investigation in France, Cherchez la femme. With the guise of "human interest", sex, by its combination of power simultaneously to arouse voyeuristic curiosity and puritanical indignation, is the mainspring.
Thus a primary element in any scoop is to acquire (and prevent the competition from acquiring) the "story" of the principal characters involved in any episode that has caught the attention of the public - aka hit the headlines. Where the essence of the case is criminal behaviour, even murder, but where it has an overtly sexual content - as in the case of the Saudi nurses, or Fred and Rose West (the use of Christian names is part of the technique for showing them as "real" people) - then the titillation-factor escalates, and the participants have hot potential.
If a newspaper has bought an "exclusive" relating to a particular person, then it feels, with perhaps some justification, proprietary. And certainly this claim is implicitly confirmed by the manner in which rival organs will do their best to rubbish whatever, or whoever, is claimed as their own property by a competitor. This is the "Blackie-the-Donkey" syndrome where one tabloid, having worked its readers into a state of high indignation at the cruel fate awaiting an amiable female donkey ("Blackie") at some Spanish village festival, managed to present them with a triumph. Blackie had been saved, and was coming to a peaceful farm in the Home Counties where she would live out her remaining days in comfort. "Ah but..." the rivals declared, Blackie was crippled and disease-ridden. Her proposed importation was a disgrace. Who knows what strange viruses and other troubles might not attend on this "stunt"?
Similarly, when a particular celebrity has been the object of fulsome attention, then a particular paper - often the entire press - may feel that it has "made" them, and can thereafter treat them as it chooses (regardless of whether or not the celebrities have so conducted themselves as to be charged in the criminal courts). Actors, singers, politicians, whiz-kids have only a tenuous life-expectancy within this convention.
Anyone who has sought, and received, publicity enters that long and vaulted corridor in the temple whose priesthood, waiting by the altar, are ready at their own choosing to practise and enjoy the ritual of human sacrifice. It is the traditional pattern of the circus. In ancient times the Roman emperors would distract and placate the mob by first displaying the chosen hero, then contriving his humiliation, and wounding, before the jeers of a spectating crowd. A phenomenon perpetuated still in these days, where modern circuses manage to arouse simultaneous fear and admiration as "wild" animals are displayed - later to suffer torment and subjugation.
First, the setting up - I recall one prominent and (genuinely) respectable MP being first embarrassed, then shamed, after being invited to listen to, and comment on, tapes of his daughter soliciting on the telephone. Finally, the destruction. At the end, the hunt has transmogrified into a blood sport whose objective is to inflict misery on the victim and titillate the audience with schadenfreude. Lady Caithness and Lady Green (wife of Allan Green, former Director of Public prosecutions) are examples of people who have been goaded beyond endurance by harassment on the telephone or on the doorstep, concerning their own sexual behaviour or that of their spouse. When I predicted the demise of Princess Diana, a Mr Alan Cochrane wrote a piece of some length to assert that I had "finally taken leave of my senses".
But it is impossible to overestimate the level of crude vindictiveness that reporters are encouraged to apply. Little regard need be paid to their protestations that, like concentration camp guards, they were "only acting under orders". The sadistic delight of the paparazzi (or, as the vernacular has it, "monkeys") who take continual pleasure in the intimidating effect of their weight of numbers, of the sound of cameras clacking on motordrive, and of the blinding of the victim by high-intensity flashbulbs: all these, from individuals who will never converse or even communicate a greeting other than an obscenity designed to provoke, find counterparts in the crudities and contrived falsehoods of their desk-bound colleagues.
Look for an example, taken at random but most recently, from a Sunday newspaper. This paper had bought, one must assume for a substantial sum, the trashy (and plainly contrived) "diaries" of a back-bench Tory who lost his seat after only one parliament. Plainly there was a commercial requirement to spice them up a bit. And so when a reference was made to the author's predecessor as MP, himself a sad and lonely alcoholic who (fortunately for the paper's lawyers) died one year ago but had in his time been returned by the electorate with far higher majorities than his successor, it was delegated to a sub-editor.
This individual, within the confines of a heavily framed "box", told readers that the "Old Etonian" (much deployed indicator-code for privilege, so the reader is put on notice to be prepared to spit) was "rumoured to be a pervert who preyed on small boys".
This extraordinarily hurtful allegation was without any foundation whatsoever. Nor is it possible to make much sense of it even within a context of the ever-present requirement to increase the paper's circulation. It can be understood only as an example of sadistic falsehood, whose overt homophobia embellishes the "story" with an added prurience.
Certainly it is often possible to predict, from even the most sidelong glance at the intended "subject", how their achievement, or misfortune, will be handled. Here, in this great cauldron of alphabet soup, to be "snooty" (like Selina Scott), or fastidious (like Graham Le Saux), or even (like Sir Alec Douglas-Home) courteous, means that you deserve to be taken down a peg. Any insult, however crude, any accusation, however fanciful, is permitted (a denial is always good for a headline).
"Dumbing down" is an expression minted for The Sun, The Mirror and to a slightly (very slightly) lesser extent the Mail titles. I recall one of the many occasions on which I was invited to appear on television in order to review the newspapers. I was in the company of a distinguished visiting American, and we were looking at The Mirror.
"In my country," he said, "the people at whom this paper is aimed can't read."
In fact this brutish culture, part base prejudice, part leering innuendo, which colours and informs the style in which these papers compete one with another, is a transposition of the technique of the playground bully: where the "sensitive" child is held up to ridicule by the mob and their confidence shattered, their innate sense of modesty, truth and value deliberately extinguished.
What can we do about this? As individuals - particularly I should say as individuals - nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Sue? Impossibly expensive, outcome unpredictable.
Complain to the Press Complaints Commission? Complete waste of time - you might as well refer a fraudulent pension scheme to Fimbra.
Always remember that once you have drafted a press release, or spoken - even on the telephone - to a reporter, you place yourself at their mercy. And for all time.
Just as there is no such thing as gratitude in politics, so there is no such thing as mercy in the media. Individuals suffering bereavement, distress, or the consequences of some especially gruesome criminal episode, are significant only as circulation fodder. They are weak, and thus to be despised and exploited. All that will temper the cruelty of the press is a demonstrable level of exposure-fatigue in their audience. Only this can force a change of direction and cause the editorial conference to search round for another target.
So much for the treatment by the press of individual human beings and their predicaments. But what on the macro scene, be it global or domestic, of an editor's proudest claim - to set the agenda? Here analogous, though not necessarily identical, considerations apply.
Editors are subject to Focus Group Syndrome. This often, and misleadingly, will raise the "profile" of an issue to a level well beyond that of genuine public interest. A campaign is launched, treading that narrow strip of territory between boring blue the majority of the readership, and earning the plaudits of a category (first identified by the beleaguered Ted Heath) known as "right-thinking people". Temptingly, if recognition is imposed on the audience, then later - and in the condign sense of the word - it may be bestowed on the editor and those who are prominent in his entourage.
Lead-free petrol, dangerous dogs, hand-guns. On many different subjects Parliament has been pressured into responding, and the press has been able to claim victory. Never mind that the additive-laden vapours of lead-free fuel, inhaled at the pump, are carcinogenic to a far higher degree than the old stuff. Or that the enjoyment, and abuse, by the police of their additional powers has inflicted misery on many families and individuals who keep pets, without (in any measurable degree) reducing the always minuscule number of victims bitten by dogs. Or that handguns remain easily and cheaply available among the criminal fraternity, the number of persons killed or wounded by handguns has increased, and the confiscation, punitive in its severity, inflicted on gun clubs, marksmen and Olympic teams has caused great hardship and disillusion. If the rationale behind a campaign is held up to the light, still more if it be contradicted, those who express doubt will be held up to obloquy.
This is also true when a paper for its own mix of reasons, intrudes upon the wider stage of international politics and diplomacy. In the Thirties a civil war raged for several years across Spain. It was marked by indiscriminate brutality, and characterised a proxy confrontation between democracy and totalitarianism of both right and left. In no time demonisation, the indispensable tool of the propagandist, was brought into play. "Reds rape, burn alive nuns" was a headline that several times found its way on to the front page. "Fascists slaughter hundreds" could also occasionally be found, though not - surprisingly - in many newspapers after Guernica.
As I write, another European civil war has disfigured the Balkans. But the reportage has its own propaganda ethic. "Investigative" journalism is scarcely permitted, blocked by a tacitly agreed, and self-imposed, censorship. To question Nato's targeting disciplines, the institutional lack of scruple that characterises the United States Air Force, the linkage between the Albanian and Calabrian Mafia and their joint exploitation of immigration and drug-traffic rackets, is to run a risk - as even the mild and conscientious John Simpson of the BBC was to discover - of being stigmatised as "a tool of Milosevic".
Newspapers entertain. For quite a lot of the time they can also inform. As for censorship, its ritualised denunciation is part of the litany recited by career-conscious journalists. But it should never be forgotten that those who seek to "set the agenda" are themselves assiduous in excluding anything that might seem contradictory, or even discordant, within their own preferred frame, an unwelcome rule that applies whether the topic is a "personality" or an "issue".
This article appears in 'Secrets of the Press: Journalists on Journalism', edited by Stephen Glover, to be published on 18 October by Penguin Press
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