Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Dark Arts, One Famous Footballer, and What Future For The Media

THE MOST famous footballer in England was marrying his former neighbour and the prospect of not getting some sort of story on the wedding of the decade was too nightmarish to contemplate.

Matters were hardly helped by a magazine buying up exclusive rights to the nuptials for Paul Gascoigne and Sheryl Kyle – with all guests ordered to sign an agreement saying they would not breathe a word to a single living soul.

Unfortunately for us journalists editors want “exclusives not excuses” – we absolutely had to get a line on the wedding and that was that. “They must have a fucking wedding list,” screamed the (female) boss, “Surely that can’t be that hard to get you bloody imbeciles.”

The fact that the same editor had moved up the journalistic ranks without ever bagging an exclusive worthy of the name, or ever stuck her neck out for anything or anyone on the road made no difference. She wanted a story and it was our job to get it – period.

We knew it was time  – in those days every publication newspaper bar none had one – to turn to our so-called “black arts correspondent”. These are the journalists who skirted the law, and very definitely crossed moral and ethical boundaries to get stories which – put quite simply – no one else could.

Stage One was to acquire via his murky contacts the (very) private ex directory number of Paul Gascoigne’s parents  – and the very tricky Stage Two was to sound exactly like Steve McManaman (Yes – really) on the telephone. Stage Three was to hope like hell that we were never caught.

Within two hours a former member of the military’s Special Forces was whispering the home telephone number of Gazza’s Mum to the journalist at the other end of the telephone line. I have no idea how he acquired it because, frankly, I didn’t want to know.

Moments later the landline in the Gazza household was trilling away until it was answered in the chirpy Geordie tones of Gazza’s Mum. “Stevie” McManaman was very apologetic but he had lost the details of the wedding list and would she mind helping him out. Mrs Gascoigne sounded confused, replying that there was no wedding list, and that “Our Paul” said to just get whatever the guests fancied. She had bought him as basket full of silver cutlery from Newcastle’s House of Fraser, she helpfully added.

Stevie apologised, saying that must have slipped his mind but wasn’t able to get off the phone for several minutes as Gazza’s Mum consoled him over England’s unlucky defeat to the “bloody Germans” at Euro 96 two weeks earlier.

That Sunday we ran an exclusive about how Mrs Gascoigne had splashed out hundreds of pounds on silver for her son’s fairytale wedding, helpfully illustrating it with a pic from the store’s range.

No-one complained and a week later we tried Mrs G again, improbably hoping she hadn’t noticed. “Who are you this week?” she guffawed. “Robbie Fowler” before bursting into laughter again and saying she had to go out and do her own shopping.

Thankfully she had seen the funny side and no complaint was received, no excuses had to be offered, and the dark arts continued to be employed whenever normal methods of getting a story failed.

I could relate two dozen other instances of similarly questionable methods being employed on that particular newspaper alone during the same 12 months. To my certain knowledge all other newspapers competing in the same tabloid market were doing likewise. Staff were also frequently interchanging between these papers during this time and taking the blaggers and their own “darks arts” skills with them – and yes that included the broadsheets.

Significantly we are talking about a period which predated Operation Motorman when virtually every newspaper on what was formerly known as Fleet Street was using private eyes and blaggers to illicit personal information, sometimes legally, and sometimes very illegally. Nine years ago the Information Commissioner gave us an almighty slap on the wrist and Editors were told this was to stop or, very simply, reporters would go to jail.

Overnight the blaggers and private eyes who had until then made an extremely good living out of working for the national press found themselves out of work, in some cases switching their allegiances to the very same law firms who now regularly sue newspapers for breaching the privacy of their clients.

As we now know one Sunday newspaper in particular didn’t appear take to take the ICO’s warning seriously, and not only continued to employ very questionable “dark arts” but took getting a story at all costs to its very extreme. The result has been Rupert Murdoch’s company forking out millions of pounds in compensation, and the closure of the News of the World.

Perhaps if we had a journalistic amnesty others might come forward to say they were hacking as well, perhaps not. Indeed it is possible that some journalists still employ blagging but the one thing which I am personally sure of is that they are not going to tell us all about it anytime soon.

Instead we continue to rake up old ground –the most farcical point in Leveson for me was the reporter Sharon Marshall being quizzed about events in her fictional book, including one which was 30 years old. The events of the past, it appears, have to be gone over before the legislators can map out the media’s new future.

The trouble is, for me, is that we are missing the point and missing it horribly here. The issue isn’t how newspapers used blaggers and pulled ex directory number and car registration plates more than a decade ago.

As Mr Justice Leveson has recognised in refusing to enter the Motorman evidence – there is no court in the land which could hold anyone to account for something that happened in 2003, especially when no-one can prove the private eyes were acting on specific instructions from anyone on a newspaper.

The real issue is what is happening on our newspapers now. The alarming decline in journalistic standards where  a local newspaper story can appear in a national word for word after being stolen off the former’s website; the newspapers were inexperienced website staff outnumber the journalists working for the newspaper; how some news sections are being written by 2-3 reporters.

Producing newspapers with smaller less experienced staff is going to lead to greater inaccuracies, lesser pre publication scrutiny, and poorer less interesting reads. We have already seen, for example, that for all their output many bloggers and tweeters lack the creative skills to really interest a wider audience, and frequently make large gaping errors in both the law and privacy.

If that is what we all want then fine – let the newspapers go to the dogs, let their staff go into other industries where their skills are better appreciated, gone never to return.

But please don’t then complain and ask why newspapers are so boring and that we don’t cover anything anymore. Oh and do tell Leveson that’s a far bigger worry than what happened to Gazza back in 1996.


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