Native New Yorkers make the news again New York learns to edit its own tabloids

John Carlin talks to opera buff, novelist and 'Daily News' editor Pete Hamill as he pushes back the British tabloid invasion
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The Independent Online
It is difficult to imagine an ex-lover of a Royal princess editing a London tabloid, especially if he also happens to be a novelist and a respected authority on opera, poetry and art.

Pete Hamill, the freshly appointed editor of the New York Daily News, is all of the above, save that the most illustrious of his numerous celebrity conquests was not the Princess of Wales but the no less courtly Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The strange thing is that, while the Daily News competes with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post for the title of America's brassiest tabloid, he betrays no inclination to blow the Post out of the water by publishing a steamy exclusive along the lines of "My Nights of Love with Jackie O". Nor - more curious yet - does he profess any interest in finding out, as he puts it, "who's banging who?" in Hollywood or Washington.

This tells us something about Mr Hamill but more about the nature of the New York tabloid newspapers, shrinking violets of refinement compared to their cousins across the ocean. The British may like to think of themselves as more sophisticated than the Americans but a visitor from Mars, taking the popular newspapers as his measure, would have to conclude that of the two the British were more vulgar, crass and shallow.

Mr Murdoch had the presumption to try and inject some British sass into the New York Post when he bought it 20 years ago, shipping wide boys from London over in droves to show the Yanks how it was done. Kelvin McKenzie, the wackily brilliant editor who ran the Sun during the Eighties, had a turn at the Post. So did David Banks, who went from the Sun to the Post to the editorship of the Daily Mirror. Martin Dunn, a former editor at Murdoch-owned Today, was Mr Hamill's immediate predecessor at the American- owned Daily News.

But Mr Hamill's arrival at the start of the new year appears to have marked the end of the British experiment. Sue Douglas of the Sunday Express was reported to have been among the contenders for his job but she was briskly passed over when he entered the frame. Mr Hamill's rival editor at the Post, Ken Chandler, is a British-born ex-Sun man, but he has been living in America for more than 20 years and has become a naturalised citizen.

British tabloid beef seems to have too much of the mad cow about it for tender New York tastes and the general feeling among city media-watchers is one of relief that it's all over.

Mr Hamill is among those who welcome the end of the Fleet Street occupation because he does not believe it is possible for a Briton successfully to run a New York newspaper any more than it is conceivable that an American could run the Daily Mail. His parents were born in Belfast, he still has family there, he has covered "the troubles" for many years yet he does not think he would be equipped to run the Belfast Telegraph, much less a paper in London. "It would be idiotic. I don't understand the nuance, I don't know the weight of a certain address, I don't know the lore of place, I don't know when someone mentions a football team what that name carries with it. I just don't know. It could be learnt - I think it can - but it can't be felt."

The only possible complaint about his credentials to run the Daily News would be that he is overqualified for the job. A New Yorker through and through whose book A Drinking Life about his childhood in Brooklyn was a smash hit in the city, he has been reading the Daily News, "since I was conscious, almost" and writing columns for the paper, and for the Post, since he was 24.

But he is also about to have his eighth novel published in the summer; he has written a book of short stories set in Japan; he is working on a book about Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter; he recites Yeats to learned audiences at New York University; and his friends say he likes to hold forth on Bizet and Puccini.

But he is an earthy fellow, exudes a muscular charm which Jacqueline Kennedy might have found lacking in her first two husbands, and he responds with unprintable gusto to the proposition that surely sales would go up at the Daily News were he to break new ground - for never has a naked breast besmirched the pages of a New York tabloid - and introduce a Page Three Girl.

"I don't know if sales would go up," Mr Hamill says. "Someone tried it in Philadelaphia or Jersey seven or eight years ago and it didn't do well. Why, is more complicated. Part of it is that newspapers here are read essentially by people aspiring to something else. This is particularly true of an immigrant culture like New York. People coming to live here are coming primarily to live better than they lived in the old country. So I think they're aspiring to something other than the momentary diversion in the morning - you know, the semi hard-on on the way to work.

"I think they are aspiring also for something for their kids. One reason the straight old tits-and-ass kind of Fleet Street tabloid, or post-Sun tabloid, would have a lot of trouble here, I think, is because it would not get home. It would be picked up and its final destination would be a trash can at the office or at the railroad station. A newspaper that depends on advertising rather than news-stand sales has to get home, has to get to a table somewhere where people, primarily women, make consumer decisions. They look at it and they say 'I want that toaster', and I don't think Fleet Street tits- and-ass would ever get home in a city like this."

Americans, in short, are more puritanical than the British? Possibly, Mr Hamill concedes, more hypocritical. Either way, the fact is that Mr Murdoch's baser instincts have served his commercial objectives far better in Britain.

Nor has the Sun formula of running articles no longer than a TV soundbite caught on. Apart from the absence of naked flesh aside, what is most striking about the Daily News is that the articles are the length of those found in the Times - a tendency Mr Hamill means to encourage. For his mission, at the Daily News, he says, will be seek to engage reader's brains more, shun the simplistic emotionalism favoured by the Fleet Street invaders. But how will the public respond?

"You have to trust the reader. You don't have to hit him over the head and say 'this is tragic', 'this is shocking' - they can make the moral point themselves. If you don't trust the reader you're going to be in trouble. You're going to create a paper that's fraudulent.

"Sensationalism expresses either a shock or a horror that is not felt - not felt by anyone in this city when they hear John Major said 'f---' or Gary Hart got laid. You don't have to treat readers as if there's only one way to look at this story. You don't have to treat them like morons."