It was an astonishing admission from one of Rupert Murdoch’s most faithful executives. We’d gone to lunch to reminisce about our years together working at Wapping on Murdoch’s broadsheet papers. This was a man who was once so “on the Murdoch message” that he dismissed an investigation that I had produced into child labour sweatshops as “Well, what’s wrong? It’s the market isn’t it?”
“I now think,” he told me with a deep sigh, “I was in denial.” I had never thought of it in quite that way. The queasy feeling in my stomach was nothing to do with the quality of the steak and kidney pudding at one of London’s most august gentlemen’s clubs.
Now that the truth about some of Rupert Murdoch’s news operations – hacking, blagging, payment to police and worse – is exposed in all its awfulness, I, too, have wondered how much we News Corp journalists all really suspected, but never quite admitted to ourselves.
My time as head of news at the Murdoch Sunday Times through the late 1980s and early 1990s was a relative age of innocence compared with the horrors of recent times. Yet this was the period in which the seeds of the disaster that is now engulfing News Corporation were planted.
News journalism is a complex and often chaotic cocktail of adrenaline, risk-taking, egotism and competitiveness. Most of the time it is underpinned by a genuine quest for the truth and a sense of decency, however confused it might seem. But the Murdoch news machine is fuelled by more toxic and combustible ingredients – a culture of fear, unquestioning subservience to the media tycoon’s political and business interests and a willingness to push the envelope till it falls off the table.
As one former News of the World editor used to advise his staff: “Take the story to breaking point and then ratchet it back a notch.” Unfortunately, many journalists at Wapping conveniently forgot about the last bit as they got carried away in the wild west atmosphere
Unscrupulous though his methods were, I know exactly what the phone-hacking private detective Glenn Mulcaire meant when he told the Guardian that his employers exerted “relentless pressure” and “constant demand for results”. (No wonder News Corp were paying his legal expenses until this week, hoping he might not say anything more incriminating.)
It was precisely this that impelled many people inside News Corps’s London HQ at Wapping to do dangerous things – especially in atmosphere of mass hysteria that followed the 1986 dispute, when Rupert Murdoch sensationally sacked his printers. Many of the Sturmtruppen who cut their teeth in the years following Fortress Wapping were the very same people who went on to high executive positions as phone hacking went on unfettered, including Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man, who have both been forced to resign in the past week.
To my knowledge, there was no phone-hacking on my watch – for the simple reason there was a rule that all reporters were interrogated on their sources for all stories that went into the paper. But as the former People editor Bill Hagerty pointed out last week, editors cannot know everything. At the very least there was some reckless risk-taking – not exactly discouraged by the News International corporate ethos.
I summarily dismissed a reporter who was caught trying to cover his mistakes by offering a financial bribe to the staff in the newspaper computer room to falsify his copy. Shortly afterwards he went seamlessly on to a senior job at our sister paper the News of the World, and his “scoops” were celebrated in the final issue earlier this month as some of the best journalism in that newspaper’s history.
More traditional journalists were shocked by the “creative” techniques used by Sun journalists bussed in to fill the gaps filled by so-called refuseniks (journalists who left for other jobs during the Wapping dispute or refused for moral reasons to work for Murdoch when he had sacked their colleagues).
During the crisis of the past few days, Wapping executives and PRs have been busy trying to close down the idea of “contamination” inside the company – and to hold the line that the News of the World was a “rogue” newspaper.
Gordon Brown’s allegations that The Sunday Times used “criminal elements” to obtain stories about him were rubbished last Sunday in a front-page story that questioned his mental stability. NI executives have dismissed Jude Law’s suit alleging phone hacking by Sun journalists as “deeply cynical”. However, the scandal got closer to Britain’s biggest-selling daily when the Sun features editor was escorted from the premises last night in relation to “offences committed when he worked for the News of the World”.
But should anyone be surprised at the idea that other papers could be involved with illegal practices when the production of 40% of Britain’s national newspaper circulation is concentrated in what some have described as a kind of journalistic “factory farm”?
When Rebekah Brooks worked as a reporter for the News of the World, she dressed as a cleaner, according to its editor Piers Morgan, and hid for hours in the toilets of The Sunday Times in the neighbouring offices so that she could steal one of their stories. Was she sacked? Not a chance.
This was because nothing of significance happened in Wapping without the ultimate sanction of one man. It was nonsense when Mrs Brooks told the Lords communications committee in 2008 that interference from Murdoch “just does not happen”. It was a mantra that the News Corp tycoon himself repeated when he appeared in from of a House of Commons select committee this week.
But Rupert didn’t need to dictate words to his editors; the interference could be far subtler. Once he swept into the office, calling all his senior executives up to the boardroom. “Why do you guys ignore the sports pages at the back of the paper?” he rasped before walking out. Some thought the old man had taken leave of his senses. But the coded message was: “I’m about to launch Sky Sports and make bloody sure you get it on the front pages.”
On other occasions he would have his senior staff delivered by chauffeur to his London home, or that of his chief executive, where the Sun King would declaim his views on current subjects. No one dared to dissent in case they fell out of favour, though one worse-for-wear political journalist did just that when he dropped a glass of red wine on the white mohair carpet.
In the same way, it seems barely conceivable that the present CEO of the UK operations James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, did not know what was really going on for much of the time. Yet this was the subscript of what he told the members of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee this week. It came home to roost yesterday, when Colin Myler, editor of the News of the World, and Tom Crone the newspaper’s legal manager, accused him about not telling the truth about seeing a crucial email which revealed that phone-hacking was more widespread than the company had admitted.
This will ensure the story is back in the headlines tomorrow as it has been every day over the past fortnight. The stakes get ever higher as Prime Minister Cameron says that James Murdoch must face questions again from Parliament. It may be that he will also have to face accusations of perverting the course of justice. And the commercial consequences for the company get more disastrous by the day.
I’ve been commenting on the scandal for BBC Radio over the past week in my role as head of ethics at Britain’s biggest academic journalism school. The feedback from the public has been universally hostile to the Murdochs. No wonder Britain’s Olympic team dumped their sponsorship deal from News International yesterday. I have heard many instances of people cancelling their subscriptions to The Times because they cannot trust its coverage of the scandal any longer. (Although the problem lies in omission, I believe, rather than inaccuracy.)
Memories of newspaper misdemeanours can be long. Sales of The Sun in Liverpool have never recovered from a boycott over what the newspaper said about the city’s Hillsborough victims.
But before I became a journalism academic, I was a senior News International executive. Did I “sell my soul” to Rupert? I hope not. We must remember that all his newspapers (and, yes, the News of the World too) have produced some excellent journalism and first-class journalists – many of whom have gone on to perfectly decent careers in other news organisations. (I went on to become executive editor of The Independent and deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday.)
But perhaps, like my colleague, I, too, was “in denial” – in common, as it has turned out this week, with huge chunks of the British establishment, especially politicians and the police, who bought into the Murdoch culture.
Certainly, I have never again been able to bring myself to quite enjoy reading a story in any News International title – including The Times. (Especially sad, since, under its previous ownership, under Lord Thomson. This was where I first cut my teeth as a Fleet Street staff journalist.) Like the workers in a Turkey Twizzler factory, I know too much about the provenance of the ingredients. In that sense, I suppose I shall always be a “recovering” Murdoch journalist.
There’s an oft-quoted Fleet Street saying which runs: “You can take the man out of Murdoch, but you can’t take the Murdoch out of the man”.
This has often been sported as a covert badge of honour in the diaspora of former News International journalists and executives around the world – even by those that their boss had sacked or humiliated.
But in this epic moment of humiliation for the Murdoch empire itself, I don’t suppose there will be too many – especially Les Hinton, Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and the 200 sacked staff of the News of the World – who will be crowing about it this week.