The attack of the killer cucumbers (or not)

When everyone actually <em>is</em> going to die, no one will believe the tabloids.

Bloody foreign bacteria, coming over here, infecting us. Yes, the latest panic-porn scare story being fed to us is the tale of what the Daily Express refers to, with typically unhyperbolic restraint, as KILLER FOOD BUG.

The new strain of e.coli, initially thought to be hidden in Spanish cucumbers, caused a bit of a problem for our beloved papers. It's hard to panic about something that's happening in another country, a few rogue cucumbers killing off some Germans. Where's the jeopardy in that? But now things are serious. Now the big red button has been well and truly pushed. Because it's coming over here.

MUTANT E.COLI IS IN BRITAIN, shrieked the Daily Mail this morning, with all the calmness of the housekeeper in the Tom & Jerry cartoons standing on a stool. This is the story, whether we like it or not, whether it's scary or not: the deadly bug is coming here, to infect us and kill us. 7 BRITS HIT BY 'KILLER' CUCUMBERS, roared the Daily Star, ignoring the evidence that the new strain of bacteria is not believed to have come from cucumbers after all, but pointing out that now British people have been infected instead of Germans, it's time to get serious.

It's not unlike other stories and narratives our popular papers like to peddle - foreign invaders, crossing the border at will, causing widespread destruction. Sometimes it's immigrants; sometimes it's scary invading critters like ladybirds or jellyfish or squirrels; today it's bacteria.

This year's Icelandic ash cloud proved disappointingly unapocalyptic, so this scare has come along at the right time, with just enough promise of peril and just enough anxiety about our shores being invaded by foreign nasties to keep us all interested. Perhaps this is the scare that will have legs and become the new BSE; I think that's the hope, anyway. All too often, these things come and go, and disappear off the radar pretty rapidly when they aren't sufficiently terrifying.

You may not remember tabloid panic about campylobacter, back in 2009, for example - but that made the front pages. The Express splashed with it back in October that year and the Mail chipped in too. "Killer chickens on our high streets" has been kicked around every now and then since, entirely coincidentally happening on relatively slow news days when there isn't much else - asylum seekers, the BBC, political correctness having definitely gone mad - to worry about.

Now it could be the case, and I'm not saying it isn't, that there genuinely is something really worth worrying about with the latest scare. But it's hard to tell. We get these panic stories force fed to us, like Robert Morley having his beloved pet poodles stuffed down his throat by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood; and it's difficult, as a punter, to know which are the ones that should cause us genuine concern.

Perhaps it would help if papers could have a code, a "safe word" that would make us realise that this is a properly scary thing, rather than a pretend scary thing - maybe if they wrote the headlines in blood red, that would mean this story really is something to worry about, rather than something to worry a bit about then forget about. "You know all the times we said this or that might kill you or give you cancer, and we were just kind of exaggerating? Well this one is really dangerous, really dangerous, honest", they could say, to put us at ease - or rather not. The irony is, when Godzilla does turn up at Dover, and the tabloids warn us, we'll all think they were pulling our legs.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Brexit Big Brother is watching: how media moguls control the news

I know the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph well, and I don’t care to see them like this.

It would take a heart of stone now not to laugh at an illustration of Theresa May staring defiantly out at Europe from the British coast, next to the headline “Steel of the new Iron Lady”.

Those are, however, the words that adorned the front page of the Daily Mail just five months ago, without even a hint of sarcasm. There has been so much written about the Prime Minister and the strength of her character – not least during the election campaign – and yet that front page now seems toe-curlingly embarrassing.

Reality has a nasty habit of making its presence felt when news is remorselessly selected, day in and day out, to fit preconceived points of view. May and her whole “hard Brexit” agenda – which the public has now demonstrated it feels, at best, only half-heartedly enthusiastic about – has been an obsession of several British newspapers, not least the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

I know these papers well, having spent the best part of a quarter-century working for them, and I don’t care to see them like this. When I worked there, a degree of independent thought was permitted on both titles. I joined the Telegraph in 2002; at the time, my colleagues spoke with pride of the paper’s tolerance to opposing views. And when I was at the Mail, it happily employed the former Labour MP Roy Hattersley.

Would I be able to run positive stories about, say, my mate Gina Miller – who successfully campaigned for parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process – in the Telegraph if I were there today? Or at the Daily Mail? Dream on: it’s two minutes of hate for that “enemy of the people”.

Morale in these newsrooms must be low. I am finding that I have to allow an extra half-hour (and sometimes an extra bottle) for lunches with former colleagues these days, because they always feel the need to explain that they’re not Brexiteers themselves.

Among the Telegraph characters I kept in touch with was Sir David Barclay, who co-owns the paper with his brother, Sir Frederick. Alas, the invitations to tea at the Ritz (and the WhatsApp messages) came to an abrupt halt because of you-know-what.

I don’t think Sir David was a bad man, but he got a Brexit bee in his bonnet. I was conscious that he was close to Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and both had cordial relations with Rupert Murdoch. It became clear that they had all persuaded themselves (and perhaps each other) that Brexit suited their best interests – and they are all stubborn.

It seems to me unutterably sad that they didn’t sound out more of their factory-floor staff on this issue. We journalists have never been the most popular people but, by and large, we all started out wanting to make the world a better place. We certainly didn’t plan to make it worse.

People used to tell me that papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph changed because the country had but, even in the darkest days, I didn’t agree with that premise. We are in the mess we’re in now because of personalities – in newspapers every bit as much as in politics. The wrong people in the wrong jobs, at the wrong time.

Would the Daily Mail have backed Brexit under Dacre’s predecessor David English? It is hard to imagine. He was a committed and outward-looking Europhile who, in the 1970s, campaigned for the country to join the EU.

I can think of many Telegraph editors who would have baulked at urging their readers to vote Leave, not least Bill Deedes. Although he had his Eurosceptic moments, a man as well travelled, compassionate and loyal to successive Conservative prime ministers would never have come out in favour of Brexit.

It says a great deal about the times in which we live that the Daily Mirror is just about the only paper that will print my stuff these days. I had a lot of fun writing an election diary for it called “The Heckler”. Morale is high there precisely because the paper’s journalists are allowed to do what is right by their readers and, just as importantly, to be themselves.

Funnily enough, it reminded me of the Telegraph, back in the good old days. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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