Why I’m ashamed to admit I’m a journalist – says BJW lecturer

11 07 2011

John Jenkins, legend of Fleet Street reveals his own murky past and reveals which papers may close next.

When the announcement came that this weekend was to see the last edition of the News of the World I was not surprised but very sad.
The scandalous revelations concerning phone hacking into private telephone conversations was too serious to be ignored.

For the first time in something like 50 years connected with the media I feel ashamed to admit that I am a journalist and I have been a reporter and an executive on both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers.

Why Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International did not resign or was not sacked in the early days of these revelations I cannot understand.

Brooks defence – or Rebekah Wade as she was when editor of the News of the World, was that she didn’t know that it was happening. I find that totally unconvincing.

The News of the World was a weekly paper, it came out once every seven days. There is plenty of time for an editor to find out who is providing stories and where they come from. If she truly didn’t know then she must have been the most incompetent national newspaper editor of all time.

I once worked for a Sunday newspaper – the Sunday Express under the editor John Junor when it sold more than 4 million each day. Junor read every line that went into that paper whether it was written by a lowly reporter, a provincial correspondent, an international news agency or a specially commissioned politician.

He read it in raw copy, on page proofs and on the page. Nothing escaped his eyes. Woe betide anybody who got something wrong or stepped beyond the bounds of decent behaviour. Instant dismissal was a fact of life. He was not a popular man among his staff.

But popularity is not a requisite for a good editor. When he gave an instruction it was certainly not a subject for debate. But his judgement of events and people was legendary.

My first editor, on the Dorset County Chronicle in its heyday was Heber Bruce, a Quaker and a man of great integrity…I was once offered money to keep a court case out of the paper. When I told him he took my copy and elevated it from a two paragraph filler to an inside page lead.

The tragedy of the N o W affair is not that they exposed people like randy footballers and actors – or cheating and lying politicians – but that they stepped into the blameless lives of ordinary people, some beset by grief.

At a stroke this has undone much of the good which newspapers do to preserve our democracy and given politicians a big stick to beat the Press and to step even closer to laws of privacy which will hide their own wrongdoings.

To have seen John Prescott and Max Clifford and Hugh Grant on screen, posing as white knights denouncing newspapers and posing as arbiters of good taste stuck in the craw.

And Fords, Virgin and other advertisers have set a dangerous example in withdrawing their advertising. Does this mean we are now to have newspapers subject to censorship by advertisers?

So if Ford motor company produce a car which a motoring correspondent describes as a bag of nails will they use that s a reason not to advertise?

There is also a great attempt to paint Rupert Murdoch as some kind of ogre who leads poor naïve politicians astray and Labour politicians are quick to say he has Cameron in his pocket.

Press Lords have always courted politicians just as politicians have courted them. He was good old Roop to left wingers when the Sun supported Tony Blair and the Labour Party, having been weaned away from Margaret Thatcher.

But when his newspapers switched allegiance he became a devil with horns.

And it’s often forgotten that while Murdoch’s News International publishes the N o W and the Sun, he also publishes the Times and the Sunday Times.

The fact that the two sober papers sell around 1.5million copies with each publication while the other two were the biggest sellers daily and on Sunday says more about Britain than it does about Murdoch.

It also did not come as a surprise to me to learn that policemen had been paid by the News of the World.

In my days as a reporter in London’s East End I knew that some officers were given a drink by national newspapers – in the jargon of the time that translated into – anything from £25 to £1,000 or a holiday with some excellent shooting.

And in the days before mobile phones it was not unknown for one agency in London to monitor police radios in order to be first on a crime scene.

As far as I was concerned the offer came the other way. A Detective Inspector in the East End offered me money for information which might help his team to feel a few collars. We settled amicably for an arrangement which meant that he gave me useful background while I tipped him off about anything I discovered about crime. It was all done over the odd civilised pint or two. Neither of us ever broke a confidence.

Now you have the ridiculous situation of police spokesmen who give out a statement which is usually too late and useless.

Conversely we now have police officers hogging the cameras at the end of a court case giving their views on the crime. This may be good for their egos and promotion but I would prefer such reporting to be concentrated on the judge’s remarks.

Now which will be the next newspaper to close? Unfortunately it could be the Observer, which has never been a happy bedfellow of the Guardian. It was always a better newspaper than its daily partner: it rang with authority whether n politics, defence, the arts or sport and it had the guts to support the abolition of hanging before most politicians jumped on the bandwagon.

Recently it has been starved of resources as the Guardian, which once survived on the back of the Manchester Evening News, has found its losses mounting.

It will not be many years – or maybe months – before we have one tabloid newspaper , probably the Sun-Mirror, and one mid range paper: the Mail/Express and one decent quality journal: the Telegraph/Times.

Unfortunately television and radio will not take the place of the missing titles.