First Thoughts

Peter Wilby’s week of ducking and diving in the media as Rupert returns and Greek drama breaks out.

When in trouble, Rupert Murdoch's instinct is to spring a surprise on his critics and rivals. The launch of the Sun on Sunday shows that even as an octogenarian he retains, to quote his biographer Michael Wolff, the "strange combination of lack of doubt, impulsiveness, high-risk behaviour . . . that makes him the central, even heroic, presence in his newsrooms". Equally his email to News International staff - "we will turn over [to the police] every piece of evidence we find [on illegal activities] . . . because it is the right thing to do" - shows how he takes the moral high ground when he needs to. It reminds me of how he received a journalists' delegation, which I led, after he moved his papers to Wapping. As sacked printers howled outside, Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, was shouting at beleaguered hacks and rewriting their copy. We complained. With straight face and hand on heart, Murdoch said: "Editors should never interfere with journalists' copy."

The latest developments do not change my view that a sale of Murdoch's UK newspapers is the almost certain end of this drama. His email promises he will stay "with you all, in London, for the next several weeks", but nothing more. Any longer commitment would have alienated his shareholders and most of his News Corporation executives. A successful launch of the Sun on Sunday ensures a higher sale price.

Zero sum

Sadly, it seems that I am of no interest to the Murdoch papers and therefore unable to claim a lump sum from the great man for having my phone hacked. However, a source - not a police officer - reports that a private detective invoiced the Daily Express £863.50 for information about me in September 2007 when, in a Guardian column, I disobligingly described the Express as "a hopeless newspaper that couldn't tell you the time of day" (sorry, chaps, only joking). Nothing, so far as I can discover, was published. Given that the detective, according to my source, may have provided nothing more than my telephone number - which is in the directory - I am reluctant to capitalise on my new status as a "victim".

History lesson

As Greece struggles to meet the terms of its rescue package, German ministers might adopt a gentler attitude if they were to think of its debt repayments as reparations. Germany was required to pay reparations after the First World War as compensation for war damage. They were never fully nor even largely paid, and they were finally written off in 1932 after 13 years of wrangling. The Germans hardly suffered at all because they borrowed far more on the private markets in the 1920s - which they didn't repay either - than they paid out. But they resented the imposition and, for many years, blamed every misfortune on the burden of reparations and other provisions of the Treaty of Versailles 1919. We all know how that ended.

In a Branson pickle

Tories, and particularly Etonians, once disapproved of upstarts. Nowadays the Tories want to get down and dirty with the common people while Old Etonians become mercenaries who help overthrow African governments. According to David Cameron's aide Steve Hilton, “We are on the side of the upstarts" and, to become one, you need only grow a beard, wear bright jumpers and cavort in balloons. Hilton therefore advises ministers to fly with Richard Branson's Virgin rather than British Airways "fat cats".

I wonder how often Hilton uses Branson's wide-ranging services. Virgin Media recently came to my home to instal a new television box and transfer the existing one to another room. The engineer installed a new box that didn't work and then, instead of moving the old box, which had worked perfectly well, he replaced it with another new box that didn't work either. The result was to leave us with erratic access to BBC1 only, as though we had returned to the 1950s.

It took one hour's navigation through Virgin's automated switchboard and "advisers" with an uncertain command of English to persuade them to return and take us back to the 21st century. We still have "issues", as people now say. My wife is trying to resolve them but has left, exhausted, for a few days in the country.

We've been ad

The Press Complaints Commission, it is frequently suggested, should remodel itself on the Advertising Standards Authority. I wonder. The Authority has ruled against Ryanair for placing newspaper ads that showed female flight attendants in underwear under the strapline "Red hot fares & crew". Complaints are pending about Channel 4 billboards that proclaim "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier" over images of traveller women and children to advertise Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, and about the bookmaker Paddy Power's TV ad inviting viewers to spot "transgendered ladies" at the Cheltenham races. An online video by the animal rights campaigner Peta which features domestic violence may also reach the authority.

The Ryanair ad breached the advertising code's clause 4.1, which presumably also applies to the Channel 4 and Paddy Power cases. It states that adverts "must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence", particularly on grounds of "race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age". The Peta ad - in which the message is that vegan men can still be red-blooded enough to beat up their girlfriends - will probably be considered under clause 4.4, which rules out encouraging "violence or antisocial behaviour".

Peta has previous with the authority. In 2009, a "Meat Kills" ad fell foul of clause 9.1, which prohibits causing "fear or distress without good reason".
Could the Sun, the Mail or even that fine paper, the Express, possibly survive this code?


Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars