A journalist of fifty years standing offers a personal and independent assessment of the often troubled relationship between public figures and the British news media. My aim is to try to monitor events and issues affecting the ethics of journalism and the latest developments in the rapidly-changing world of press, television, radio and the Internet. Expect too an insight into the black arts of media manipulation. So spin-doctors, Beware!
For any student of the British press the endless barrage of red-top headlines that fills the stage at the National Theatre is often as funny, or sometimes even funnier, than the script lines of Great Britain, Richard Bean’s satire on tabloid journalism and the phone-hacking trial.
Constantly updated front pages from The Free Press and its imaginary competitors hark back to the heyday of the manufactured story-line and the glory days of classic Sun scoops such as “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.
Rebekah Brooks (acquitted) and Andy Coulson (convicted) are two unspoken names that are both front of stage in the mind of the audience but so too should be those of the ex-editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, and the former publicist Max Clifford, whose string of “exclusives” once dominated Fleet Street.
The MacKenzie-Clifford production line of kiss-and-tell stories, and the gob-smacking headlines that went with them, helped to generate an insatiable appetite for celebrity scandal that required ever-more intrusive forms of journalism and heralded the descent into the hacking of messages left on mobile phones.
A brash inventiveness among headline writers and the ingenuity and cunning of journalists who write exclusives sourced only on the words of “An onlooker said...” are characteristics that have become the hallmark of the British tabloid press.
Many of the events taking place in coalfields around the country to mark the 1984-5 pit dispute are celebrating the outcome of the strike as an unprecedented achievement for the mineworkers: their victory was to have held out for as long as year against Margaret Thatcher’s government and the full force of the state.
Wonderland, Beth Steel’s new play about the miners’ eventual defeat and return to work, is a faithful portrayal of their struggle and will be a source of great pride and encouragement to activists who are determined to seek justice for the mining communities.
From the moment the play opens (at the Hampstead Theatre until 26 July 2014) the audience sense the physical challenge, heat and even brutality of life underground. The set is dominated by a pit cage; constant crashing and banging along the carriageway to the coalface add to the reality.
The contrast could not be greater when events switch to London and the offices of Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, Ian MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board, and David Hart, the rich, shadowy adviser to Mrs Thatcher.
Beth Steel’s inspiration was that she came from a mining family. Her father worked as a miner for thirty-five years and she draws on a deep understanding of the family conflicts that arose among men of the Midlands pits as they struggled to come to terms with the strike and then endure months of hardship.
Rebekah Brooks’ acquittal on the charge of phone hacking will be interpreted by much of the newspaper industry as a vote of confidence in its decision to defy Parliament and to press ahead with the launch in the autumn of a new, independent press regulator.
“Keep Out” could almost be the caption below the Sun’s front page welcoming what is said were “a string of not guilty verdicts” after a trial that had been “one of the longest and most expensive in British criminal history”.
Brooks’ not guilty verdict was greeted with great relief by those newspaper proprietors and editors who have turned their back on the royal charter on press regulation that gained cross-party support in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.
Andy Coulson’s conviction for conspiracy to hack phones had been widely expected among fellow journalists. But his finding of guilt – and guilty pleas from five others who were involved – has largely contained fallout from the case within the confines of journalists employed on the now defunct News of the World.
David Cameron’s swift apology for his “bad decision” in 2007 for having given Coulson a second chance by appointing him the Conservative Party’s pre-election publicity chief, and later taking him into Downing Street as the government’s director of communications, was aimed a drawing a line under the affair.
The gruesome finale to Maria Miller’s seven-day struggle to hang on to her cabinet post as Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport was a text book example of the high-wire political news management that blighted the Blair years.
Her resignation within a few hours of the start of Prime Minister’s questions mirrored that of Peter Mandelson’s second on-off resignation from Tony Blair’s government in January 2001.
He finally stood down from his position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland less than an hour before the start of questions in the House of Commons, allowing Blair the chance to wipe the slate clean when he was challenged at the despatch box.
Mrs Miller was only too well aware that David Cameron would have had to face a near impossible task trying once again to fend off criticism of her own inept handling of the investigation into her claims for parliamentary expenses.
Her resignation was announced at 7.18am on Wednesday 9 April; she had given Cameron the benefit of almost five hours in which to prepare himself before he had to face the Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The self indulgence of a cohort of departing BBC executives in agreeing between themselves the size of their pay-offs and pension pots came as no surprise to many of the journalists and producers who had worked alongside them. Nicholas Jones, a BBC correspondent for thirty years, traces the origins of a sense of entitlement that took root in the upper echelons of the Corporation and which uncoupled an ‘officer class’from their obligations to the licence payer.
While some employees found the collective strengths and ideals of ‘auntie’ BBC outdated and restrictive, many of my contemporaries ended fulfilling careers acknowledging they had been well rewarded. Most are comforted in retirement by their good fortune in being the beneficiaries of what for them has been a generous final-salary pension scheme. But those of us who stayed the course cannot help but reflect on the gulf that grew ever wider between editorial and production staff and the multiplying layers of upper management