Vanishing press barons, Teflon Rebekah and a PCC dream team
Nothing is for ever. When I first worked on Fleet Street more than 40 years ago, Max Aitken, son of the recently deceased Lord Beaverbrook, the greatest newspaper mogul of his day, was still in charge of the Daily and Sunday Express, which each had circulations of several million against barely half a million today. Lord Hartwell, a son of the Berry family, which bought the Daily Telegraph in the 1920s, still meticulously pored over proofs every night in his fifth-floor office, appending comments from "the lord above", as he was known, in atrocious handwriting. The Observer, though under a trust, was in effect owned by its editor David Astor, who inherited the paper from his father. Lord Thomson was the coming man. Owner of the Sunday Times since 1959, he had recently bought the Times from another branch of the Astor family. All are gone and largely forgotten. Only the Rothermeres, owners of the Daily Mail, seem to go on indefinitely.
Now the Murdochs look likely to join Fleet Street's overcrowded graveyard. Rupert's next dramatic gesture, I predict, will be to put all his UK papers on sale. Senior executives in News Corporation, including his son James, regard newspapers as an old man's sentimental indulgence: all the company's papers worldwide contribute less in profits than the BSkyB minority stake. They depress the share price and just cause trouble. Getting rid of them would instantly remove the media plurality objections to Murdoch taking over all of BSkyB.
I am reminded of the late columnist Alan Watkins. "Dear boy," he would say at times like this, "editors and proprietors come and go but they make no difference to me. I just continue writing my column and, if the new boss doesn't like it, I take it somewhere else." So he did, working for a variety of publications from 1959 until his death last year, and outlasting nearly all the great newspaper barons.
Everybody seems amazed that Murdoch refuses to sack Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International and former editor of the News of the World and the Sun during the heyday of hacking. Commentators suggest she has somehow become a family member. I find this unlikely: after three marriages, Rupert's family is complicated enough without adding another daughter. A more plausible explanation is that she knows too much. Cast adrift, she could do the Murdochs enormous damage. If properly questioned by the police, she would sing anyway, but Murdoch prefers not to think of that.
Look back at stories published by Murdoch's papers over the past decade or so and the evidence of hacking, blagging and bribery was staring us in the face all along. How else did the journalists acquire such detailed knowledge of lovers' intimate conversations or the chancellor's private affairs? The truth is that journalism frequently resorts to practices that are dubious, ethically if not legally. Early in my career, I received, and published extracts from, stolen documents, comforting myself that I personally hadn't carried out or instigated the theft.
Two weeks ago, in a different context, I quoted the late foreign correspondent Nicholas Tomalin. His words bear repeating: "The gathering of newspaper information almost invariably involves guile, subterfuge, humiliation, lying, cheating and a healthy amount of straightforward criminality". Tomalin told of how, when a chaplain of Trinity College, Cambridge was rumoured to have become engaged to Princess Margaret, an Express reporter was told in the middle of the night to clamber over the college railings, remove his shoes and climb the stairs silently to the man's bedroom to put the matter to him directly. What, the reporter asked, should he say? "May I be the first to congratulate you?" suggested the duty editor.
I wonder what the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice would make of that.
What should replace the doomed commission? The sanctions available to a regulatory body, its status, procedures and channels of accountability are complex subjects. But I am fairly confident about what kind of people should be in charge, drawing up ethical codes, determining guilt and deciding on punishments. They should have intimate knowledge of the industry, but be sufficiently detached from its day-to-day affairs to command public trust. I would propose ex-editors such as Andreas Whittam Smith, Simon Jenkins, Max Hastings, Peter Preston, Ian Hargreaves, Rosie Boycott and Colin Myler (the now ex-editor of the NoW), plus experienced reporters such as the Mail's Ann Leslie, the Mirror's Paul Routledge and the Independent's Robert Fisk. Several already hold public or semi-public appointments; Whittam Smith is a Church Estates commissioner, while Hargreaves chaired a committee on intellectual property. They can surely be persuaded to serve their own industry in its hour of need.
When will it all end? Murdoch has been in newspapers long enough to know that even the biggest stories usually hold public attention for about ten days at most. However, the News International story, like that on MPs' expenses, has a momentum of its own since there is no obvious limit to the instances of wrongdoing that can be unearthed for incredulous public outrage. Something bigger is needed to distract attention. Perhaps Murdoch will follow the example of the US newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who sent an artist, with a reporter, to cover atrocities in Cuba. When the artist cabled that there were no signs of strife, Hearst replied: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005