Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 14 February 2012

The scum also rises.


Phone-hacking, picture-stealing, baby-trampling, cop-corrupting, privacy-invading, sub-human beasts who enjoy nothing more than making innocents cry. Granite for their souls, slime for blood, viciousness for a moral code.

And how they wail when they get caught out! The whingeing and and whining when the forces of the law wreak due process upon them, when they are dredged up from the gutter to face the consequences of their behaviour! Paedophiles show more humility, terrorists are by comparison better able to accept not everyone might agree with them. But journalists? They want freedom to continue wreaking havoc, to destroy, intimidate and ruin. They deserve everything they get, in fact they ought to get more, harder, and often.

As journalists have been sacked, suspended and arrested over allegations of police corruption and phone-hacking, as questions are asked about computer viruses and ethics, as three police investigations, a select committee and a public inquiry trawl through roughly the past 20 years of back copies with a sneer and a pair of tweezers, so they have become monsters. An entire profession consisting of thousands of people - and me - are seen as the feral beasts once described by that paragon of morality, Tony Blair, undeserving of anything but public disgust.

It has always been the case that hacks are looked down upon, particularly by people with self-installed pedestals. But now they're pissing on us too, just like Robert Maxwell used to piss off the roof his HQ in Fleet Street while mocking the poor saps below.

On the back foot for the past six months or so the trade has begun to tire of the ordure thrown its way. Many of its denizens had thought that this was just our turn, that scrutiny of the scrutinisers was fair enough, and if a handful of irks had got us in the shit it was to be expected we'd have to wade through it for a while. But as news has begun to spread of the latest developments in the police investigations so the attitude has changed from grudging acceptance of the Establishment shoe up our bums to  questioning whether the foot is quite as righteous as it makes out.

So Trevor Kavanagh and Richard Littlejohn, the Wellygraph, the Wail, the Windy, the Glimmer and the Scum have come out - not quite fighting, yet - but certainly cracking their knuckles with articles, leader columns and a couple of pointed questions about why £84,000 a day is being spent on the biggest police inquiry of recent times when we don't have enough nurses; when the Met has 24 unsolved murders on its books; and how come your average hack gets raided at dawn, his wife's car door panels cut out, children's rooms searched and relatives with cancer turfed out of their sickbed so Plod can look under the mattress, while disgraced executives who are accused of covering up the whole thing to start with get to pop to a police station when it suits?

And these complaints and queries have produced, not sympathy, but an insistence that those arrested are guilty not just of the crimes they are accused of but a wider crime against humanity as well - that they have brought the human race into disrepute, not just with criminal actions but by refusing to accept the punishment the Establishment is deeming fit to hand out.

Except for two things: firstly, the problem with dishing it out to journos is that we can largely take it. Journalists are thick-skinned, and I can shake off shit quicker than a pig in a spin-drier. Secondly if you dish it out to us we will be asking you questions while you do so, and making a careful note.

So allow me a moment, between buckets of manure, to make a few salient points.

All the things journalists ever get accused of doing wrong are either illegal or outlawed by the PCC Code of Conduct. If anyone gets caught doing them, they ought to feel the full force of the rulebook and if convicted never be allowed to even walk down Fleet Street again, much less consider themselves part of my gloriously ignoble trade.

Much of what the police investigation teams have done is no different to how they treat many suspected criminals - heavy-handed at times, sometimes plain wrong, but usually within the law (coppers are a lot like hacks, in that respect). But coppers like looking tough, particularly when journalists have caught them out nallsing up previous investigations. Perhaps this is why they're leaking all the details of the journo arrests, and not so much about the RBS executives nicked last week over tax evasion allegations.

I would however quite like it if those hacks who are guilty, when it finally comes to trial, don't have any excuse for appeal against sentence or conviction. Naffing things up at this stage, whether it's prejudicial leaks or a badly-timed public inquiry ordered by a Prime Minister facing a lot of difficult questions about his relationship with people who used to be journalists, is only going to do the bad guys a favour in the long run.

And human beings, in my experience, are generally corrupt long before we get to them. I have spent far more time in my career telling people I am not going to pay them than I have signing cheques and contracts. One hack I know has been arrested over an email sent to a newspaper by a serving police officer, asking how much he might get for a story dobbing in his superiors. The hack quite rightly responded that they could not pay him anything but that if the story was in the public interest they may be able to pay a charity of his nomination. That hack has been accused of corruption, arrested, searched and bailed, and the main thing the officers questioning him wanted to know was the identity of the whistleblower. I hope he didn't tell them, and I'll bet you my last penny that hack's never going to get as far as the dock.

In the meantime he's under bail conditions not to speak to any of his 'co-accused', which means he can't go to work for an indefinite period. Jolly good fun for him but it means that a newspaper is now being run on a skeleton staff, with fewer journos working their contacts and bringing in stories. Meanwhile the phone is not ringing as much as it did, because everyone who works for a council, government department, police force, fire brigade or healthcare trust is worried that Plod will pay them a visit. They're usually worried enough about possible dismissal and their pensions to start with. Today the fear stopping them speak must be even worse.

Yet the two top cops who resigned from Scotland Yard over allegations of a corrupt relationship haven't been questioned. Paul McMullan, an ex-journo who's not worked in the street for 10 years but has admitted to hacking phones left, right and centre, hasn't been nicked either. I'm sure if you asked him he'd admit to bribing Dixon of Dock Green, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Inspector Morse too. Come on Plod, have at it!

Coppers try to corrupt hacks as much as the other way around; and those who are decent, on both sides, engage in a dance in which they exchange information but never cross the line we all instinctively know is there. I buy him a pint, he buys me one, and we're all square. His boss might not like it but that's been going on for 200 years quite safely and legally. True corruption comes much higher up, when an executive in the Press and another in public office start to scratch each other's back, to do favours they oughtn't and arrange gifts worth thousands of pounds. They're the ones who disgrace the rest of us, as well as themselves, and they're the ones who should be raided at dawn.

We will also need to decide at what point corruption kicks in. Is he corrupted if I give him £1? How about £50? Is he only corrupted if he changes his behaviour, or if he embarrasses his boss? If he is a senior Scotland Yard detective who resigns in disgrace does his corruption get erased? Is he to blame for that, or the newspaper executive who partied with Prime Ministers? Is corruption contagious, or is it possible to work with someone dodgy and not pick up that infection yourself?

And finally can anyone explain how allowing the pendulum to swing quite this far is doing the wider world any great favours? Three months ago I reported here that Britain was 19th in the World Press Freedom Index; we've dropped nine places in 12 weeks, and today it's 28th. If that happened in a country ending in -stan there'd be questions at the United Nations and Shami Chakribarti would be having an embolism on Question Time. But then, this is just journalists. We're scum.

Catching the corrupt, sentencing the criminal, and rooting out the bad doesn't harm anyone's freedoms. And as I told a group of students at Bournemouth University yesterday, if you're a hack the world will always see you as a second-class citizen. When you are assaulted in the course of your job the police won't care, the CPS won't prosecute, and a jury won't believe you. There will always be someone who is upset by what you write, no matter how carefully you do it, and a stranger will tell you how much they hate you while asking you for detail about Hugh Grant's sexual peccadilloes.

The fact it's our turn I can live with. That you may not like me I couldn't care less about, because you still read this far. The fact that a trade which, however much you may dislike its constituent parts, has every right to speak for upwards of 25million readers a day is under serious threat I cannot.

But I didn't tell that to those journalism students, as their futures will be tough enough and I reckon that the pendulum will swing back into balance.

Because there's one other thing the people attacking us haven't worked out yet: scum always rises.

Pencils are deadly in the right hands.