The Daily Abuse

A News of the World executive was criticised last week for 'cavalier' treatment of a journalist. So, asks Tim Luckhurst, are there too many ogres in newspapers?

Greg Miskiw can relax. By the standards of behaviour prevalent at some British newspapers, last week's employment-tribunal ruling that the News of the World man's conduct toward the former crime editor, Peter Rose, was "cavalier and irresponsible" hardly merits a raised eyebrow. Miskiw, the paper's head of news, reneged on a £45,000 offer for an interview with a witness in the Damilola Taylor trial but failed to inform Rose. Naughty? The tribunal agreed. Atrocious? Consider this.

It is 7pm, and the news editor has been working for 12 hours with no more than a coffee break. The editor summons a final conference in order to select the top stories for the front page. He scans the schedule presented to him and declares: "This is shit. I could get better ideas from monkeys. Fuck off and find me a story."

The news editor explains that he is not employed to invent news. Raising his voice to hurricane force, the editor pokes him repeatedly in the chest and declares: "I am surrounded by incompetent c***s. If you can't run a news desk, I'll show you how to do it." He storms into the newsroom. "If none of you bastards can come up with a splash, there will be sackings. You have 10 minutes."

On that occasion, one young correspondent resolved to tame the beast's temper. He dredged up a statistic purporting to show a massive reduction in spending on a key government priority and called contacts to invite them to express outrage. They obliged. The story was written at breakneck speed and published as the front-page lead, complete with "exclusive" tag. It was wrong. The correspondent had misplaced the decimal point. By the next morning, his contacts were protesting that they had been duped. The minister was on the telephone, demanding a retraction. "Did I push them a bit too hard?" the editor asked his deputy. Then, not waiting for a reply: "Nah. These bastards are operating in the comfort zone. Someone has to lift them off their fat, lazy arses."

In his calmer moments, that editor claimed he had learnt everything he knew from a Fleet Street legend when he was himself a news editor. He regarded abusive tantrums as a managerial tool and encouraged senior colleagues to "ride them hard; terrify them", once complaining to his deputy: "Are you ill? I haven't heard you raise your voice once. The monkeys are losing respect."

That attitude runs deep in British journalism. Peter Oborne, the political editor of The Spectator, worked for the Express group when the pornographer Richard Desmond bought it. He has spoken of Desmond's "wonderful, admirable vulgarity" and "raw, animal presence". Richard Barber, a former editor of Desmond's OK! magazine, once gave an account of an episode in which Desmond threw a chair because he was angry with his editorial director, Paul Ashford.

Rosie Boycott, former editor of the Daily Express, asked Ashford about the experience. What did he do? "Nothing, I put the chair back." Did it hurt? "Of course, but that's Richard for you." Boycott characterises Ashford as "an abused wife whose self-esteem has been eroded by a bullying husband until she cannot bring herself to leave".

Paul Holleran, of the National Union of Journalists, remembers one editor who made his mark on his first day at the helm. "A book reviewer got up to speak about plans for a special supplement. The new editor said: 'Shut up, c***-face. The days are numbered for people like you.' "

Holleran continues: "There is more malice in it these days. Some editors and senior executives are actively trying to drive people over the edge. Sometimes they do it to get rid of people without paying compensation. But it is a power thing, too. It is intended to intimidate other members of staff."

According to Greg Philo, of Glasgow University's media unit, that sense of being trapped and unable to protest pervades the industry. "It is a pretty insecure profession. Vast numbers of people want to get into it. Bullying is the result of the mixture between the real pressure of the job and people's desperate desire to break into the industry."

The unhappy reality is that there are senior executives who believe that intimidation works. One successful editor insists it is essential. As he once told me: "Journalists are not civilians. Every day is a battle, and they have to be hard enough to win it."