James Hanning: The News of the World 'hasn't done a single good thing'

James Hanning talks to Peter Burden, the author of a book that turns the screws on the tabloid for causing suffering in the name of sensation
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The Independent Online

For a mild-mannered, comfortably off former lounge lizard, Peter Burden is remarkably angry. He is so fired up by what he – not a journalist - sees as the News of the World's slide into the gutter that he has written a book about it, setting out in remarkable detail how the paper operates and how indifferent he feels it is to the suffering of those it exposes.

"There is a bit of journalistic freemasonry," he says. "Every book I have ever read about journalism is by a journalist, so I thought I'd try and give a different perspective. I'm not beholden to any old editors or old chums; I can say exactly what I want and take the risk."

To some journalists, the book may seem ambitious and even a bit naive. But Burden, 59 (no relation to a former Daily Mail reporter of the same name), has gone to greater lengths than many in the trade, assuming public indifference, might have thought worthwhile. A certain amount of his material – about the Lawrence Dallaglio cocaine sting, for instance – is pulled together from other sources, but he breaks new ground in bringing out of the shadows, for example, the paper's celebrated lawyer Tom Crone, survivor of eight editors. (A former NoW journo describes his old place of work, where "a horde of little devils rake muck, lie, invent anything they think will titillate and tempt a less than diligent public into hating, sneering at or despising someone else ... [There] stands Crone, the legal ringmeister always on hand to tell them just how far they can go, and what it will cost them if they do transgress, so they can balance that against additional sales.")

The exploits of "Fake Sheikh" Mazher Mahmood and the methods that caused Clive Goodman, the NoW's royal editor, to be jailed last year are examined in detail. Mahmood and Goodman have asked to see the book, evidently for legal reasons, but neither has yet responded. (But then neither they nor ex-editor Andy Coulson, now David Cameron's spin-doctor, responded to Burden's earlier approaches.)

But isn't the News of the World one of those less glorious parts of British public life that has always been with us, for better or worse? Burden says not. In the book he outlines the paper's original aims (from the 1840s). "I'd always been a news watcher and I was getting more and more appalled at standards which started dropping in the mid '90s. Once it was understood that celebrity trivia was an international commodity – you can sell stories all over the world, which Murdoch recognised and that's why he appointed someone like Piers Morgan as editor – all the emphasis moved to celeb stories, to the cost of the one or two genuine stories they used to do."

The NoW would say it puts baddies behind bars. "I can't think of a single good thing the paper has done in the last 15 years," retorts Burden. "They run campaigns but they're completely disingenuous with their claims about public concern. People say 'it's crap but it's a good laugh,' but even if they think it's crap they still believe a little of it. And in stories of infidelity, the person who has been cheated on is much more hurt than the person doing the cheating, and it serves no public purpose at all."

Burden himself, he admits, has an "odd provenance" for writing a book like this. He left school early and drifted into late '60s Chelsea, where life was evidently louche and enjoyable. He gravitated towards importing bric-a-brac from Morocco, then to the clothes business and set up a successful jeans company called Midnight Blue. He wrote a novel about the rag trade, followed by several more. He also ghost-wrote the autobiographies of Leslie Phillips and David Hemmings and penned a musical about Jeffrey Archer, written entirely in clichés and court transcripts, but he has never shown a particularly bent for the media.

But he wants to strike a blow for the victims of the press, and seems to have no selfish motives for doing so. "There should be a clear, statutory definition of privacy and of invasion of privacy, and it should be set out that if a newspaper and an individual journalist transgress, they should be punished. In the paper business, they feel that their right to investigate and publish are sacrosanct, and I'm saying there is not justification for that sanctity. I feel people are entitled to their privacy and if it has been gratuitously invaded, then people should be answerable."

The Press Complaints Commission would surely say that is what it is there for. "The PCC has no real powers to call evidence or of chastisement," he says. "I know that when Richard Thomas [the Government's information commissioner] did his great research into private investigators, he found the broadsheets were up to it as well, but generally there was a genuine story at the bottom of it. But the tabloids were often breaking the law and then claiming public interest when there was none. The public interest isn't just what the public is interested in."

He dislikes the cant and irresponsibility of the press; if it wants to expose drug-taking, for example, why won't it go after non-celebs? The effect is to make drugs glamorous, he says. "What used to be considered bad anti- social behaviour is now just seen to be what the rich do all the time. I do think a paper like the Screws has contributed to the decline in standards. It has glorified coke-sniffing in an absurd way under the guise of public interest, and of course young readers see it and think, if so and so is doing it then I'll do it too."

He also dismisses the idea that exposing marital infidelity is exposing hypocrisy. How many politicians, he asks, even during John Major's invocation of Back to Basics, ever really proselytised explicitly about monogamy?

The argument that the press has a role to play in exposing law-breaking, and that newspapers need to have an audience for what they do, is accepted in part by Burden, but he says that on occasion the press abuses its rights. In his book, Burden cites Mahmood, breaker of countless front-page stories. He accuses him of wasting police time, particularly over a supposed plot to kidnap the Beckhams. "If you deconstruct some of the stories – if you look at how he put the stories together, from very, very flimsy beginnings and then dressed them up, all based on absolutely fuck all, actually, and then created a huge great police investigation – then frankly [my] story stands up without much argument. The judge said the case should never have come to court, ergo there was no case, ergo the police's time as well as the court's time has been wasted."

Burden, whose brother is a journalist, says the power of Rupert Murdoch made it difficult to find a publisher for his book. He apologises constantly if he sounds sanctimonious but he is certainly no Mary Whitehouse, instead having a patrician concern for what the nation sees at its breakfast table. He also believes that what goes on behind closed doors should stay there (Archer was asking for it, he says, as he was looking for hookers out in the street).

There is a lack of clarity, he feels. Are we entitled to know about the sex life of John Humphrys, for example? Burden thinks not, but it might be a grey area for some. If something doesn't affect their ability to do their job, he says, it is none of our business. Besides, "I'm not especially saintly myself".

'News of the World? Fake Sheikhs and Royal Trappings' is published by Eye Books at £12.99