But one thing that has got my attention is the discussion about the consequences of this episode for the proud and much-vaunted world of British journalism, and what the culture of the tabloid newsroom is really like.
On the one hand, I’ve been thinking that it’s a tad hypocritical for many of the people who regularly buy – and have bought for years – our national newspapers to suddenly decry tactics and apparent underhand techniques that, unless they’ve been living in a cave, they surely suspected went on all the while. The same goes for police and politicians. How else did you think they got those scoops, divine intervention? As Ray Liotta said with veiled menace in Goodfellas, “They knew what went on at that cab stand”.
Yet in the past 24 hours media commendators have been quick to point to an apparently maverick, cut-throat newsroom culture that took root in Wapping in the 1980s as the reason for such strongarm investigative journalistic tactics. Many have said it shouldn’t even be called journalism. Others have talked about the pressure journalists are under the deliver stories in an all-out war for higher circulation figures. Some apparently feel they can’t say no to requests for dirty tricks in order to generate stories because they fear they’ll lose their jobs. Some of this, to a degree, in my experience, rings true.
I by no means have inner chamber insight into the working of Wapping. But having trained as a journalist in the early 1990s, worked on a regional daily that competed with the nationals and been paid by nationals – most of the tabloids – to provide information and copy on a freelance basis, I have some experiences that may help people to understand the newsroom psyche. Here are 10 things I experienced in that time and have observed since:
1. The 1980s. I started my first paid newspaper editorial job in 1992, in the midst of a recession. Five days later I was offered voluntary redundancy, and politely declined. It was a brutal time, borne of the aftermath of Wapping disputes, unions being sidelined, a brave new world of colour (yes, colour!) newspapers with slicker production processes, and rabid competition for circulation and ad revenue. Combine that with the rise of 1980s ‘lunch is for wimps’ culture and recessionary job fears, and you had a recipe for an uncaring, dog-eat-dog newsroom mentality. You got in early, worked unti late, lied and cheated your way to break stories and lived in fear of being beaten to them by rivals. My employer was actually pretty responsible, fair and moralistic about how reporters were treated and demands were balanced. But many weren’t. And when the shit really hit the fan, it was a case of get in there with your tin hat on. I remember covering a plane crash in the early hours of the morning in winter, in a rainstorm, wearing a shirt and suit trousers, and being threatened at gunpoint. When I got back to file copy I was told off for putting my health and safety at risk, and asked to write the story within 15 minutes.
2. Competition. The newspaper’s editorial staff all want the front page lead to be theirs, every day if possible. They’re protective of what they’re working on. It’s the way to get ahead in your career, but it’s hardly teamplay. The good reporters would help each other out, but others wouldn’t.
3. Outside help. Staff reporters were implicity encouraged to try to extract information in the pursuit of stories by any and all legal means. Morals did come into it on a regional paper because it had a reputation to uphold in the local community. The tabloids would a
lways push it further. But when it came to the real dirty stuff, news agencies were often a source of copy that staff couldn’t generate themselves. I remember one example of a young female news agency reporter having a breakdown after being pushed to knock continuously on the door of a bereaved family until she got a quote. She was practically assaulated in the process, and got nothing other than a dressing down from her boss for perceived failure. It was ugly.
4. Trampling on people. My newspaper didn’t sanction it. Others did. I once arrived at the scene of a teenage suicide (girl who had hanged herself from the bannister at home) to find a reporter for a national tabloid that shall remain nameless stealing rubbish bags from the back garden so they could be sifted for information and potential suicide notes. A queue of reporters were on the doorstep wanting interviews. This sort of thing was completely commonplace.
5. Trampling on journalists. While I learned more in a few years in journalism than I could have ever hoped to, got ahead very quickly (writing stories for the nationals at 20, head reporter at 21, night news editor at 22, still made the tea throughout) and wouldn’t change a thing, journalists were often put in personally compromising positions. I had already decided that PR was a better career for me (as had many hacks at the time) when I was asked to cover a story about a friend of mine killing himself. I asked to be kept out of it, but was told that as I knew the family I was the man for the job. The copy I wrote, as compassionate as I could make it, was dramatised before publication. It was a career low-point.
6. Surveillance. Nothing like the current allegations and previous revelations of course, but if a news reporter tells you that journalists didn’t and don’t listen to police scanners, they might not be being truthful. It got to the point where reporters would turn up at scenes before the police. What marvellous foresight.
7. Delusion. Working in this way, with this pressure and competition, and using techniques so get this close to information and incidents as they occured, it was perhaps inevitable that some journalists saw themselves as something of a frontline public service, and so had unwritten rights to know things, be places and talk to people in a way that the general public couldn’t. Legally, that’s not the case. But it didn’t stop it becoming a popular belief that ’they have to let us know, we’re the press’.
8. Police relationships. Proceed with caution on this one. I won’t go into any of the current allegations, but suffice to say the relationship between police and the media, while often strained, was typically rooted in mutual understanding. They needed each other. Equally, most editors were perfectly happy to take the local police down a peg or two in their next story after one that trumpeted a bobby’s valour.
9. Identification. I was taught at journalism school that reporters are always under a moral duty to let potential interviewees know who they are and who they work for. Often, reporters went deliberately light on detail in order to avoid people clamming up. Or opaque when discussing how they intended to use the information. The same is often true today. It was seen as part and parcel of journalistic practice, and you risked getting fewer or no stories without it.
10. Bullying. Well, the workplace was very different back then, and I sometimes wonder how ‘the world owes me a living’ Gen Y types would fare in the world of 80s or 90s journalism. Was it bullying? Perhaps. Certainly it could be intimidating, rarely for the faint-hearted and ‘not for wimps’. Machismo to the fore. Most things, in the estimations of those I know working in journalism today and who worked in it in the past, stopped short of outright bullying. But other things were be borderline or, occasionally, classic bullying. For British journalists coming out of the 1980s hangover, caught into the ferocity of 90s media and yet to be hit by
the rise of the internet, seeing colleagues in tears, strops or crisis meetings was a regular occurance.
From what I’ve seen and talk to journalists about since, some things have changed, but some remain the same. It will be intriguing to see how the News Of The World works to recover from this week’s headlines, and how the transparency expectations and two-way nature of digitising media may change the face of British journalism.
Oh, and we did care about the Press Complaints Commission. A matter that made the back page of UK Press Gazette because you’d pushed it too far was practiclly a badge of honour for young reporters.