Friday, July 15, 2011
Why Britain is Making the wrong kind of headlines
I often complain that Britain seldom makes headlines much in the USA, although it makes headlines a lot more often than Belgium.
I have been eating my words this week as the News International scandal has been erupting all over the US networks.
I get a bit uncomfortable when the three words “British, journalist and ethics” are put together but there’s no denying that when it comes to sleaze the British tabloids lead the way. While papers such as the National Inquirer caught up, apparently they were only able to plumb those murky depths by importing a load of British hacks.
For me the golden age of tabloid sleaze remains the 1980s when the Sun was edited by Kelvin McKenzie, every employee’s worst nightmare. McKenzie was infamous for the tirades he unleashed on unfortunate employees and for his sensitive headlines such as “Gotcha” when a British submarine sunk an Argentinian battleship with the loss of hundreds of lives.
When McKenzine became fed up with a subordinate editor, nicknamed the “human sponge” he printed his personal phone number in the paper and urged angry readers to call. Apparently he once told a woman who called up to complain she was banned from reading the newspaper and arranged for someone to stop her deliveries.
In the end McKenzie came unstuck by libeling Elton John, who is apparently rather wealthy and understandably resented a story about a boy scout. He also angered half of the population of Liverpool over the Hillsborough football disaster coverage.
After the Sun, McKenzie was never quite as cocksure. He was a Roman emperor without his purple cloak. He was a bit like the playground bully who is unexpectedly knocked to the ground by the small kid he’s spent the last two years picking on.
The same could be said of the News of the World, the downmarket Sunday tabloid that closed suddenly last weekend, brought to its knees by the phone tapping scandal.
Even Rupert Murdoch, the all powerful ruthless media mogul, is looking his age as his empire makes all the wrong headlines, and appears a somewhat humbled shadow of his bullish former self.
I won’t miss the News of the World but it will be strange to return to Britain next month and to find it gone. The newspaper wasn’t always the mix of affairs and breasts, and reporters digging up dirt undercover dressed as sheiks, that it became. When it started life in 1847 it was a rather dutiful broadsheet, mentioned as a fabric of British life by George Orwell.
Its curious motto was "All human life is there,” although in recent years this seems to have been narrowed to all pond life.
The life of a tabloid is a strange this because I always thought it would be an irresponsible but a fun ride. Yet when I worked a few shifts on the Sun, I found the place lifeless and laden with fear.
Then, for a number of years, I worked late shifts on The Sunday Times, always feeling a sense of dread as I made my way into Fortress Wapping, past the rapine features of Murdoch in the hall, to a room where people moved around but seldom talked. Where I’d sit for hours in silence, hearing the humming of the print works, wading through tortuous business news. Nobody would talk, the only correspondence would come from terse emails.
But then occasionally a door would creak and a short little woman would emerge from a glass cubicle to scream at me, before retreating. I never found out her name.
It was strange to see a video of the gates of Fortress Wapping swinging open last Saturday as News of the World staff walked out for the last time, and the undead blinked and squinted into the bright lights. I’m not sure if their tabloid existence was ever a lifestyle because it felt more like a form of dying.