Friday, July 8, 2011

The World Ends...

Yesterday was a bleak day for journalism. The News of the World, the UK's most popular newspaper (yes, contrary to all the knockers, it actually had quite a few million readers) closed under the shadow of phone hacking.

I can't defend the ghoulish revelations that have come to light in recent days detailing murder victims and grieving relatives whose phones were hacked by the paper in the endless search for stories (although I find it hard to have sympathy for any hacked expense fiddling MPs, playaway Premier League footballers and poncey 'my family are my world' actors who are secretly sleeping with prostitutes.)

But I can shed some light on what it's like to be a tabloid journalist, having worked at The Sun for four years and later for the News of the World when I first went freelance. When people ask me the innocent question 'So what do you do?' I steel myself before answering as it's usual for the conversation to take the direction of 'Okay, where is the tape recorder hidden, all this is off the record.' Journalists, and tabloid journalists in particular, are generally a distrusted, even despised breed, and you get used to defending your reputation to people you have never met before at a party or a dinner. I've done it so often, it doesn't even occur to me that it's not normal behaviour to defend your profession and qualify why you do it.

When I started out on Fleet Street (Wapping actually) at News International, it was 1990, Piers Morgan was my first boss as editor of Bizarre, Andy Coulson was a keen young showbiz reporter just across the newsroom from our desk and Rebekah Brooks was soon to be promoted from Sunday magazine to be features editor at News of the World in the office just down the corridor.

While tabloids are looked down upon (even by the people who surreptitiously hide their copy of the NOTW under their Sunday Times or Telegraph) broadsheets are feted yet it's widely known in Fleet Street that any tabloid hack could cut it at a broadsheet (many have jumped ship to work for the respectable press) while there aren't many broadsheet journos who could hold their own at a tabloid. The pace is rapid, the competition to get a story cut-throat but the camaraderie and loyalty is never in doubt. If you are lucky enough to be at a dinner table with a bunch of journalists, I can promise it will be the most entertaining, witty and outrageous spot in the entire room and the best night out you might ever have.

I had four of the best years of my career at the Currant Bun, working for Kelvin Mackenzie in a newsroom where there was rarely a dull moment. It wouldn't suit everyone but even the madness of standing on The Highway with the entire editorial team being urged to shout 'Up yours Delors' for a front page decrying the idea of Britain joining a single currency in Europe, through to being asked to sing rather tunelessly the song I reckoned was going to be the new chart No 1 that Sunday in the editor's office in front of a roomful of grinning executives (FYI it was Crystal Waters' La da de La da da...and no, it didn't reach the top)couldn't dim the excitement of working at the newspaper every other daily watched so they didn't get left behind.

Andy lived and breathed the job, often wiping the floor with the opposition which is how he came to be promoted to editor of the News of the World. Rebekah was ambitious but friendly (in those days) and Piers was, by his own admission, celebrity-obsessed and always destined for a career on the other side on the fence. This all feels like a very long time ago.

Journalism is full of talented, erudite, streetwise people who expose wrongdoing, scandals and cover ups at the highest levels of society, as well as the tittle tattle gossip that even the broadsheets cannot resist rewriting from the front pages of the red-tops. Let's not forget all the good the power of a free press can achieve.

Lots of decent people are now paying the price for the reprehensible behaviour of a few bad apples. And to the gloaters who are basking in the glory of seeing a 168-year-old newspaper go under in shame, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Don't believe everything you read, especially if it's in the red-top bashing Guardian.

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