Tuesday 12 July 2011

News From The Dark Side

Sustained Moral Outrage: Comedian, Steve Coogan, confronts the former Deputy Features Editor of the News of the World, Paul McMullan, on the BBC's Newsnight programme: "You're not a journalist! You know you're not!"

YOU HAVE TO WONDER why he did it. The British people were aghast: disgust rising like bile in their throats at the gross moral turpitude of the News of the World. And yet, there he was: Paul McMullan, Deputy Features Editor of the News of the World from 1994-2001, defending the indefensible on Friday’s BBC Newsnight programme.

The casting could hardly have been better, because physically, intellectually and emotionally McMullan was the perfect representative of that doomed newspaper and the morally compromised corporate culture in which it operated.

Slack-limbed, loose-jawed, lank-haired and dead-eyed: speaking in the weak, reedy accents of East London, McMullan’s every self-justifying syllable sounded as if it had been pre-smeared with the mud of the Thames. The man would have done credit to Dickens himself.

Challenged by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis to defend the News of the World’s hacking into the cell-phones of politicians, celebrities, the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and most egregiously, the “In-Box” of murdered teenager, Milly Dowler, McMullan’s response was eerily offhand.

“I’ve always said that I just tried to write articles in a truthful way. And – you know – what better source [for] getting the truth than listening to someone’s messages.”

In those jarring, self-contradictory sentences, McMullan not only lays bare the extraordinary strangeness of the story he tells himself, but the extraordinary lack of moral scruple that has come to characterise the British tabloid press.

In McMullan’s moral universe it is important to write articles in “a truthful way”, but not, apparently, to gather information for those articles in ways that avoid the gross violation of an individual’s right to privacy.

What McMullan simply doesn’t appear to understand is that the casual resort to immoral means inevitably contaminates, and corrupts, even the most noble of ends.

The News of the World’s use of private detectives to dig out the sort of information that would otherwise have remained hidden represented, in essence, a kind of moral and professional short-cut. The newspaper’s editors had obviously decided that the patient, laborious – but ethical – techniques of acquiring information were far too time-consuming. To get the scoop – and thus sell more newspapers than their rivals – they told themselves that their employers’ worthy objectives fully justified pressuring their journalists into adopting unethical (and, ultimately, illegal) methods of news-gathering.

True investigative journalism is not concerned with which celebrity is sleeping with which celebrity’s wife; or snorting cocaine; or watching porn. Nor does it rely on the efforts of “Bennie the Binman” riffling through rock-stars’ and news-readers’ rubbish for titillating tittle-tattle.

True investigative journalism concerns itself with the probity of our political leaders, the efficacy of government policy and the integrity of our institutions. It’s goal is not the revelation of private human frailties, but the righting of wrongs and the exposure of public malfeasance.

And the true investigative journalist gets his story not by trickery, deception or illegality, but by patient inquiry; by laborious (and often dangerous) amassing of evidence, and, most importantly, by persuading those in possession of crucial information to do the right thing, pro bono publico – for the public good.

It is this that makes true investigative journalism a genuinely noble enterprise. Not simply for informing the public about matters of great importance, but for reminding those in possession of crucial information that they have a democratic duty to keep their fellow citizens “in the loop”.

It’s what makes “Bennie the Binman” and all his ilk moneygrubbing sleaze-merchants; and William Mark Felt – No. 2 at the FBI and “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame – a genuine American hero.

For Paul McMullan, however, these ideas might just as well have come from Mars. Although, it’s fair to say that, to the two other guests on Newsnight, the comedian Steve Coogan, and the former Director-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, McMullan himself might just as easily have been a visitor from the red planet.

Regarding him with an expression that blended loathing and contempt in equal measure, Coogan unleashed one of the most splendid examples of sustained moral outrage I have ever heard.

“You come across as a sort of risible individual”, said Coogan, eyes narrowed, nostrils flared, “who is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the tabloids.”

And when McMullan again tried to justify himself by thrusting forward his journalistic obligations, the grand-fatherly Mr Dyke cut him short:

“Can I just say,” he said, appealing to Maitlis and Coogan, “I’ve spent most of my life being a journalist, and I’m nothing to do with him – and nor are most working journalists.”

You’re not a journalist!”, seconded Coogan, “You know you’re not!”

And still McMullan failed to grasp how far he was from the light.

“Oh yes I am”, he objected. “I just keep the journal of the day.”

No, Mr McMullan. Your news is from the dark side.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 July 2011.


Victor said...

A well-written piece, marred however, Chris, by the atrocious, antediluvian snobbery of your reference to the "weak, reedy accents of East London...pre-smeared with the mud of the Thames".

Would Mcmullan be any more reputable if he spoke in the dulcet tones of an Old Etonian or, alternatively, of a New Zealand media pundit?

Who are you trying to compete with; the late Nancy Mitford, Auberon Waugh or just Hyacinth Bucket?

May I remind you that weak, reedy East London accents would have been on the lips of the many thousands of men and women who stood in the path of Mosley's Blackshirts and who, a few years later, withstood all that the Luftwaffe could throw at them.

No doubt tones similarly redolent of the sludgy old Thames would have wafted effetely through the ranks of the apprentice lads, who stood, pike at the ready,to repulse Charles I's attempt to re-take his erstwhile capital, thus ensuring your freedom to comment as you will these many centuries later.

And, of course, weak reedy East London voices would have been far from uncommon amongst those who built New Zealand's infrastucture, its Labour movement and its once admirable welfare state.

Perhaps you might care to ponder these thoughts.

Michael said...

Wherever there is a dollar to be made, some will try to make that dollar by hook, and some by crook. Some of the crooks have real jobs. And some get caught and lose those jobs, as in this case. We know this - it is not surprising. I doubt the outrage of the supposed moral crusaders mentioned above comes from any sympathy for the victims of privacy invasion. Mr. Dyke unwittingly lays it bare: 'I'm not one of him.' This has nothing to do with ethics, only the pride and reputation of some already smelling tar from the same brush applied so thoroughly to their reviled guest. And well they might fear it - one a journalist, another a comedian, they are from the same gaggle as the roasting goose of Mr. McMullan, making money by publicising others' unfortunate circumstances whether 'ethically' or not. 'There but for the grace of God go I' might have been a more poignant response from such. But it all serves as a timely reminder of the ancient words of another commentator: 'there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known'.

Chris Trotter said...

I stand, justly rebuked, Victor.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Victor said...

Repentance duly noted. No further action required.

By the way, the Howard Hawks classic, 'His Girl Friday' is currently viewable in one fell swoop on YouTube.

Viewing it suggests that little, apart from the technology of snooping, has changed, when it comes to the worst of journalism.

Victor said...

A further recommendation is the brief article and sound clip from Billy Bragg on the Guardian website's 'Comment is Free' section.

Anonymous said...

All truly progressive political and social forces require privacy to gell and develop. That is an insight that came very strongly to one Thomas Jefferson during his years as ambassador to pre revolutionary France. After his return to the United States, Jefferson insisted on a two bell system, so the servants and waiters only entered the hall of the politicos to deliver the meals, and exited immediately when they had delivered the plate. It was essential the republicans be able to plot in private.
Murdoch is interested only in money and power for his talentless family. Very much the lowest common demominator. Murdoch's ultiamte hate and beit noir is the New York times. A democrat of a very strange sort is this South Australian.

Andy C said...

"True investigative journalism is not concerned with which celebrity is sleeping with which celebrity’s wife" True, but that's what shifts papers. Especially if said celebrity wife is a lingerie model that can be slapped on the front page whilst wearing .....well, er, not alot.