Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Gulag, anyone?

BEING unpopular, when you're a hack, is water off a duck's back.

It's like being the fat kid at school - you get used to being the last one picked for anyone's team. We lead moral outrage against others, so it's only fair that when the finger of blame points at us we have to take our share of the flak. Tin hats on, heads down, and press on.

After Princess Diana died I went to work with my heart in my mouth for a day or so expecting to be lynched - not helped by the fact the local newspaper I worked on at the time had its name emblazoned across our rusty old pool cars - but the righteous outrage at the paparazzi chasing her faded a bit when we all discovered the driver was drunk and the daft bint wasn't wearing a seatbelt.

That's not going to happen with the phone-hacking story. There's no way there can be a reasonable, alternative explanation for hacking the voicemails of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and deleting some of them, giving her family false hope she was still alive when in fact she'd been snatched off the street by a paedophile, murdered and dumped in a wood. There were a number of flaws in the police investigation which allowed Levi Bellfield to kill again, and the deletion of those messages probably didn't add to them, but it's beyond even an attempt at justification.

'Unethical' is not an adequate description for it; ethics weren't even within shouting distance of whoever decided to do that.

Whoever it was - the private 'tec, the news desk who commissioned him, or the editor who signed off the bills and knew full well what "we're doing all the usual checks" would have involved - was also pretty stupid. If you break the law you don't leave fingerprints, and deleting the messages was just that. You also don't break the law right under a policeman's nose, although as Surrey Police were "up on the phones" at the same time and knew what was going on it seems they share a degree of the culpability.

I hope it was the idiot 'tec, and not an idiot journo, who didn't even notice the bottom of the barrel when he hit it. I hope News International papers find a way to report the story, and that Rupert Murdoch doesn't let the scandal drag on by backing staff who cannot, in all good conscience, continue to be backed. The sooner he puts us all out of our misery by firing a bullet at those responsible the happier we'll all be; before the weekend, for preference.

Until then the snoresheets will continue to call for retribution, all News Int journalists from page designers to tea boys will feel tainted by association, Milly Dowler's family won't get the peace and quiet they deserve and some very well-intentioned people will say that hacks should be banned from ever using a single one of our dark arts ever again.

Except - and this is an unpopular argument to start, but what the hell, I'm already a tabloid journo so there's no way you could hate me more - those dark arts should continue to be practised.

Practised, over and over again, when and where necessary, until we all know how to do it properly.

Disagree? Feel inclined to start howling "who are you to decide?" Well, here's an example. And I bet you any money by the end of it you agree with me.

Imagine you're a journalist investigating the phone-hacking scandal. A friend of Andy Coulson's rings you up. "I've just had lunch with Andy," he says. "I heard him leave a voicemail for Rebekah Brooks, in which he admitted they both knew all about the hacking and discussed ways of covering it up."

(NB for any lawyers watching: I'm sure that would never happen. This is strictly hypothetical.)

You have maybe five minutes, tops, before Rebekah gets the message. The contact didn't tape it and won't go on the record. That voicemail is the only evidence you're ever likely to get that two nationally high-profile figures not only provoked a scandal but are conspiring to subvert a police investigation and have lied to Parliamentary committees. This is the only way to nail the story.

And she's about to delete it.

You don't have time to ring The Editor, or check it with The Lawyer. If you tell the police and wait for them to do it they have to go through all kinds of formal hoops and it could take days. This is your call. What do you do?

I'd hack the phone. You'd probably hack the phone. Heck, Jeremy Paxman, Alan Rusbridger, Woodward and bloody Bernstein would all hack that phone. And if you think it's all right to hack Rebekah Brooks' phone then there are other circumstances in which it's also right. To catch a dodgy politician, expose corruption at the heart of FIFA, locate someone the cops can't find. I'd do it for a minor shagging story, if I thought that without it the celebrity involved would lie to a court and wangle a six-figure sum out of my newspaper in damages for something I knew was true. There's nothing I hate more than a liar.

You might not like it, it's a moral minefield and it comes down to personal judgement, but journalists are expected by The Reader as much as their employers to do things no-one else would. I know more about child sex abuse than most people, how a body smells after a fortnight in the open, the surprisingly undramatic pop of a gunshot when the barrel's right under the chin, how to spot and lose a police tail, what happens when you tell someone their loved one has died.

Some of that knowledge, on some days, sits heavier than others. But by and large I'd rather there's a few people like me who know that stuff, rather than that everyone has to or, worse, that nobody does. I don't think my mum wants to hear the real, gruesome details of a child rape any more than I do, but if I listen to it and interpret it properly she can still read the story in the paper without having it ruin her perception of the entire human race. That's why I think it's OK that sometimes I do things that are not nice.

I'm not Mother Theresa, I do and have done stuff you might not agree with. Sometimes it might not make much of a difference, and other times it does. If I get it wrong there's plenty of people to tell me so but it's a hard truth that journalistic dark arts have their place, and are useful, and should at times be used. They should never have been used on Milly Dowler, her family or their phones.

I don't mind being unpopular - I'd far rather be in my gang than anyone else's - but if we had journalists who stopped going through the dustbins and started being everyone's pal we'd soon be on a very sticky wicket indeed. If you want to give me a kicking that's fine, but don't chop off your legs and mine when you're done.

I hear Siberia's nice this time of year.

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