Updated: May 10, 2020
I’ve never seen a story quite so big, far-reaching and fast-moving as the News Corp story. I haven’t blogged much recently because there has been so much happening so fast and I’ve been covering some of it. In fact, I speculated that Rupert Murdoch might close the News of the World before it happened. What follows are some collected thoughts about the story, its impact on journalism and on me as a journalist, and on the bigger picture – pulled together as I’ve staked out some time to take stock. Rather than one enormous blog, this is going to be a series of posts. Hopefully my thoughts will stimulate discussion, so please pitch in with your comments.
I’m aware that the claim I make in the first sentence is open to challenge, but I really do think this story is as big as I’ve seen. The Murdoch empire has been pretty influential in shaping the political and commercial backdrop to my entire adult life – even including wars and changes of government. I suspect even those of us who have long warned about his influence have been surprised at just how deep the tentacles of Murdoch stretched, and it certainly backs up those theories about the manufacture of consent which used to be derided as sophisticated conspiracy theories. Paul Mason’s brilliant analysis is a must-read on this strand.
On a personal level I can remember the role the Murdoch press played in bolstering Thatcher and taking the country into the long dark night of her regime; nights on the picket line in Wapping during the print dispute; and much later seeing the plant from inside when I worked on The Sun’s TV mag. At that time I was also chair of the NUJ’s Central London branch and one of a small group who kept an independent union going. Our job was made more difficult after the Blair government set up the mechanism to allow a Murdoch sweetheart union to get around union recognition legislation. Like most in the media, my experience has been touched, if not shaped, by Murdoch.
I’ve never been under the illusion that my trade was particularly liked, but it’s now at a pretty low ebb in the public eye. Yet I think many of my media colleagues were too quick to beat themselves up as the story broke. There have always been arguments in the trade about what is acceptable and what is not – and the NUJ’s Code of Conduct is a key part of them. I think my old NUJ executive colleague Donnacha DeLong was being a bit too optimistic, maybe even simplistic, when he asserted The NUJ could have saved the News of the World but he makes valid points about the reasons why the union’s code of conduct is important.
Much of the discussion I got involved in on social media and face-to-face was prompted by observations such as one of the comments attached to Donnacha’s article – “right wing scumbag newspaper workers dumped by right wing scumbag newspaper owner”. Another popular theme, certainly on Twitter, was to point out to the sacked workers that ‘you can get £300,000 a year on benefits, I read it in the News of the World’. To be honest, you can’t blame many for seizing on the phrase ‘just desserts’. But there are some important points to remember here.
Plenty of people were not hacking, plenty were not pushing the kind of reactionary bilge that was one of the paper’s specialities. Things are rarely black and white; the (deliberate?) failure to recognise that was one of the factors that made the NotW what it was. I believe you have to be careful about how you attribute guilt. The fact that, for example, The Times' excellent and engaging football writer Tony Evans has had to deal with some abuse on Twitter because he works for a paper owned by Murdoch shows that the whole guilt by association line has got a bit ridiculous.
I questioned what I was doing when I worked for Murdoch in 2000 when I was deputy chief sub on The Sun’s TV mag. I’ve never been sniffy about tabloids – I grew up reading the Daily Mirror when it was a great paper – but I’ve never liked the Sun’s politics. By then, The Sun was not quite the beast it was, and in my job I was not required to bash union barons or attack single mums on benefits – just know what was happening in all the soaps. But I was aware my job was to help increase sales of the paper by producing a good magazine.
I thought the whole thing through even more when the News of the World started the Sarah’s Law campaign because I took the police’s view that it would make child abusers much harder to catch, therefore doing exactly the opposite of what the paper claimed it wanted – and no doubt opening me up to be portayed as a lefty soft-on-criminals type. As the Screws was essentially the Sunday Sun, was I part of the problem?
I decided in the end to stick with it for a number of reasons – not necessarily in this order. It was doubtful I’d find any media employer I’d agree with 100%; I needed a job; and I was not directly doing anything I could not justify. Everyone has their own line in the sand, and I knew where mine was. There were and are plenty of good people working for the Murdoch papers who do not deserve abuse by association. If you’ve never watched The Simpsons or bought any merchandise, don’t get Sky Sports or enjoy a game largely funded by Murdoch’s money, have never paid to see a Fox film, or never read a Harper Collins book, then fire away.
I’ll say more about the political reaction to the NotW closure in a later post, but I will say now that I disagreed with the reaction of many of my left-leaning friends who positively celebrated hundreds of people losing their job as a multinational tried to save itself. I’m not naïve enough to say that everyone on the paper was beyond blame, but plenty whose jobs went were and progressive politics should not be about generalisation. Some of the reaction, in both senses of the word, to the closure would not have been out of place in the pages of the NotW.
But enough of the personal stuff. The wider questions are far more important and I’ll address those in the next post.