Matthew Norman's Media Diary
Soaraway satire of Sun's editor
Monday 21 January 2008
Ever since the early hours of 3 November 2005, when she terrorised television's hardest man Ross Kemp (Ross Wade as was, before the estrangement) into summoning the protection of the local law, there's been no gainsaying the bravery of Sun editor Rebekah Wade. Even by the standards of that hilarity, however, the raw courage she showed last week on a rare foray into the public domain demands attention. It isn't every editor who openly challenges her proprietor, let alone with the savage, satirical edge Rebekah unleashed before the House of Lords communications committee.
Without calling Rupert Murdoch a liar, she cast doubt on his own evidence to that committee last September, when he described himself as "a traditional proprietor" who lays down the line for his tabloids to take on party political and EU matters. This Rebekah countered by insisting that he never interferes in her running of the paper. While some will be impressed at how swiftly she reinforced this notion (by mentioning that he rang her at 1.30am with an inside steer on the recent New Hampshire primary), others may, depressingly enough, be reminded of the phrase "working towards the Führer", popularised by the historian Ian Kershaw, whereby officials acted on what they perceived to be Hitler's wishes without needing to be told.
Apart from being distasteful, the analogy is nonsensical because Rebekah also revealed that she wilfully ignores Mr Murdoch's "dismay" at all the celebrity guff she runs (not that he doesn't have reason to be shocked: when he went off to America, the Sun he left behind was still engaged in a vicious turf war with Granta and the London Review of Books). Despite the obvious friction between them, and regardless of having just shepherded the Sun's sales below three million – how these titles survive on such tiny circulations, I'll never understand – Rebekah reassured their lordships that she remains "quite upbeat about the future". No wonder. If and when Mr Murdoch finally tires of her rebelliousness, there will be an empty chair awaiting her at the top table of British satirists.
Happily things go more smoothly for Mr Murdoch on another front. The contemptuous defiance he endures from tabloid editors remains thankfully hard to detect among cabinet ministers, especially Culture Secretary James Purnell. In public, he has always seemed touchingly matey with Rupert's son James, and any friendship can only have been strengthened by his hint on Thursday that the forthcoming legislation may oblige the BBC to share its licence-fee income with commercial networks. Any weakening of the Beeb's dominance is, it needs no stating, to the enormous benefit of BSkyB. Mr Purnell's major contribution to the empire to date was a background fixer role, as Tessa Jowell's junior, in the governmental reneging on its pre-existing agreement to keep live domestic Test cricket on terrestrial TV ... a useful start, certainly, but possibly no more than the amuse-bouche for the banquet of Murdochian fealty yet to come.
A brief but spine-chilling silence afflicted Radio 5 Live's breakfast show on Friday morning when one-time BBC strike-breaker Shelagh Fogarty teased co-host Nicky Campbell about his singing. You may recall from Celebrity Fame Academy, when he produced what's widely regarded as the finest cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water since Linda Rondstadt, or possibly the Arthur Mullard and Hilda Baker duet, that Nicky treats his voice with the seriousness it deserves, and for a crackling split second you had to fear for Shelagh. Yet it's a sign of how much he's mellowed since the day he reduced our beloved Fi Glover to tears live on air, that the moment passed without incident. Well done, Nicky!
Before we come to our own leading radio shock jock, TalkSport titan Jon Gaunt, a brief word about one of America's. The endlessly engaging Rush Limbaugh is accused of using, and reusing, the word "spade" in its racist sense in reference to Barack Obama. If so, give praise that such nastiness doesn't afflict the mainstream media here. It is several years now since the columnist Taki, whose thoughtful weekly musings continue to grace The Spectator (he is currently embroiled in a row with Bernie Ecclestone, whom he called a midget), twice referred to a black man of his acquaintance as "sambo". All a long time ago, as I say, and we won't hear another word on the matter.
And so, finally, to favourite columnist Jon Gaunt, a doughty enemy of racism in its myriad forms who uses another otherwise excellent column in Rebekah's Sun to launch a perplexing attack. "Snobby writer Matthew Norman has spent weeks trying to slag me off in The Independent," writes Gaunty, "and now reckons he deserves free tickets to my show in Southend on February 27. Fat chance, Fathead!" Passing lightly over the inventive alliterative wordplay and Gaunty's clever avoidance of witless stereotyping ("Surely that's much too far away," he posits, of Southend, "from your comfort zone of Islington and your skinny lattes"), I'm astonished at this. A few weeks ago, I gladly recorded a message of seasonal goodwill for Gaunty and his TalkSport listeners, at his producer's request, and now this.
Evidently there's some farcical misunderstanding at work, and I look forward to resolving it as a paying visitor (I'm organising a coach trip for the fast growing Leftie Liberals For Gaunty fan club) to the Q&A roadshow, be it in Southend, Bromsgrove, his native Coventry, or even at the Shaw Theatre on the outskirts of London's skinny latte-suffused Islington on 26 April. We're coming for you, Gaunty boy. Be prepared.
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