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.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Surfing...not drowning

Have been rather busy of late (not just lying by the pool, uncorking rose, shopping etc) but working hard, travelling and generally getting things done. Then I had a few emails and calls saying, why haven't you posted for the last two weeks, so while Bar sur Loup sits under a big threatening rain cloud, rendering the pool sadly out of bounds, here I am.

I left you a day before Biarritz, which was our annual surf trip. I also left blazing sunshine to be greeted by grey skies, drizzle and chilly temperatures which meant I had to wear my cleverly packed capsule summer wardrobe all at once in order to keep warm. Having been told that our beachside apartment at Hossegor was within walking distance of everything, it came as a shock to find walking distance meant 3 kms via roadworks to the nearest supermarket for supplies. Having cadged a lift there, Norma and Sarah tried to covertly steal the wheely basket to transport our breakfast supplies and the odd bottle of veuve and vodka back to our base, and narrowly escaped being arrested by leClerc's security officer who chased them across the car park. Sarah then begged a local gardener to down tools and drive us back with our shopping, telling him we were lost, and amazingly, he agreed. I think you are getting the picture on the kind of trip it was.

The sun shone next morning so as you can see above, we donned wet suits and set off to hire boards. The fact that Hossegor hosts the annual Euro surf championships should have told us that this might not be the best spot for novices who get out into the surf one weekend a year. One minute we were kneedeep, the next we were up to our necks with 8 footers crashing down on us. It was a combination of terror, exhileration and sheer madness that kept us out there for three hours being thrashed to death by bigger waves than I saw in Hawaii and Malibu.

Norma, wishing to avert another Baywatch style rescue alert a la Watergate Bay, sensibly opted to stay on the beach and watch from a safe distance wrapped in 20 pashminas. Given the conditions, it's nothing short of a miracle that we actually managed to catch a few terrifyingly powerful waves and surf into the beach albeit looking like something Jaws spat out, covered in sand, shingle and seaweed from the churning currents.

After a long recovery lunch, the surf shop guy Fred came to warn us that a storm was brewing and it was too dangerous to go back into the water so we had to console ourselves with exploring the shopping opportunities instead. Devastating.

The following week was the Ogilvy & Mather ad party that Sarah organised at the Grand Hotel in Cannes, with high wire artists, wickedly strong vodka cocktails and food stalls including sausage and mash, oysters, fish and chips and chocolate covered strawberries. The slightly more generous than canape-sized portions meant that the handyman felt no shame in eating seven servings of sausage and mash and fish and chips, washed down with his own bodyweight in Guinness. He claimed that this translated to one modest supper portion. On that we beg to differ but historically, he has a habit of over-estimating anything that is measured in inches so maybe this is his way of redressing the balance.

Then to London to do some interviews, and the lovely poeple at Disney booked me into a hotel which rather conveniently had its own state of the art spa and was a mere hop and a skip from Westfield so that was a rather lovely way to spend two days in between assignments.

With the girls breaking up for close to three months of summer holidays, the prospect of them lurching from bed to PC to fridge and back again for weeks on end was too much to endure so they were packed off to London last week for a fortnight of family and friends. Made me laugh when Livvy told me that on the first morning of their stay at my mum's, Nanny Carole was sitting on the end of their bed like the ghost of Christmas Past at 6.45am waiting for them to wake up....that's the kind of behaviour that would get you shot in our house!

On a sliding scale, the situation at home is mess = 0, pressure to cook supper = 0, tranquility = 10 but despite all of that, we are really starting to miss them. Just not the rows, hormonal rages, dirty linen on the floor and booming rap music....

The only downside of summer on the Cote d'Azur (yes, there is one) is the mosquitos. After three years of being bitten alive despite sporting every spray known to man, handyman decided that this was the year we put up mosquito nets over all the beds. They look rather lovely in a colonial/princess kind of way, and confidence was at an all time high as we flung open the bedroom doors and windows on the first night, daring the mossies to come on in and do their worst.

Unfortunately, when he got into bed, he didn't secure the net properly and awoke the next morning to find he was covered in hives and had a dozen swollen critters circulating INSIDE the net, above his head. To add insult to injury, they hadn't touched me. Obviously, there is nothing amusing whatsoever about this story. I just told it to illustrate the fact that the UK, for all its poor weather patterns, miserable economy and traffic jams, occasionally has the upper hand at times like this.