Blog entries will be posted in the language in which they were written.
July 21st, 2011

Trashy British tabs historically a breed apart

Posted by Joan McGuigan

Iconfess, though I know the News of the World scandal is occurring within my business, I watch it unfold as I might also read about cannibalism in a far-flung corner of the planet – it’s interesting as hell, as the repellent often is, but has nothing to do with me, what I do for a living or newspapers as I know and love them.

It was in the early 1970s that I first went to England.

I was still new to the business and went with a girlfriend who was also a rookie hack, both of us having been inculcated in the lore of Fleet Street.

Her parents had settled near Blackpool before emigrating to Canada, so we duly went there to see the illuminations, and better, watch the poor Brits on their annual holidays and who felt compelled to go swimming, pale flesh covered in goose bumps, despite the miserable weather, and who sat about on the cold beach, swaddled in towels and eating prawns out of paper cups.

In all sorts of ways, the scales from our eyes fell away pretty quickly.

What was supposed to be a trip by train turned into a hitchhiking adventure when, on our first night out in a club, we were pickpocketed by a couple of charmers whose lovely accents had rendered us careless (a weakness which in my case remains); we went fell-walking in the Lake District and carried so much food with us that we were frequently passed by the infirm, aged and disabled, and we actually read some of the newspapers we’d heard so much about.

They were pretty much trash even then – the Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express (it was still a broadsheet I think), NOTW, the Daily Star, and probably more I blessedly forget. Perhaps, back then, these papers also produced good traditional journalism, but I have no recollection of it, or perhaps lacked the will to work through the crap to get to it.

I should say I’m no tabloid snob. No one who worked for and loved the Toronto Sun could ever say that, and I did for many years.

The Sun relied in those days (and still largely does) upon the traditional tab recipe for success – sports, hard news with an emphasis on crime, pretty girls, columnists, snappy headlines – but its collective reporting was as solid as any and better than some.

Reporters gathered the information and had to have sources. Editors usually asked who they were. (There was a notorious case at the Sun, years ago, when this didn’t happen, to the later chagrin of those involved and at a sizable cost to the company.) Notebooks, and in later years, transcripts of taped interviews, would be produced upon request.

In other words, the usual imperfect array of checks and balances – copy editors and on tricky pieces, lawyers, and an internal sea of eyes looking at the copy – worked imperfectly, but pretty well.

Except for the physical format and its political leanings, the Sun was indistinguishable from the then-good, grey Globe and Mail or the then-stolid and earnest Toronto Star.

Now I am no historian, but tabs always seemed different in the U.K., and those which were merely bad when I first read them grew worse, their development perhaps fusing with the advent of full-blown celebrity culture.

More likely, they led the charge as an offshoot of their and their readers’ royals obsession.

NOTW was typical – a steady diet of pain caused, reports of affairs, absurd royals stories (the latest, is Kate too thin and pregnant both?), celebs caught with drugs, other people’s spouses, or otherwise behaving badly.

In that milieu, intensely competitive, it was always improbable that the phone-hacking scandal now rocking the country was ever the work of a rogue reporter or two, as was first claimed. Much more likely was that a great whack of editors weren’t asking their reporters the standard questions (Who is your source? How did you get this?) or that they didn’t need to ask because they already knew.

Either way, phone hacking, blagging (pretending to be someone else), surveillance, the use of private investigators and paying for stories and tips – these aren’t usual or approved practices at newspapers in this country.

What is equally serious, and becoming more apparent by the hour, is how extensive and cosy were the relationships NOTW staff and management forged with police (Scotland Yard’s Nos. 1 and 2 have resigned) and the political establishment. How this awful rag ever came to wield such enormous influence is bewildering.

Seems to me virtually everyone in power knew or ought to have known how it all worked, including the staff at NOTW, some of whom are now bleating about the terrible pressure they were under or how Rebekah Brooks, a former editor and most recently, until her arrest, Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant, was mean to them.

I’d be stunned if any of this happened at a major Canadian newspaper, not that there aren’t worrisome developments here.

There are, among them a new style of journalism, where the already fallible reporter is at a greater-than-ever remove from his subject, and hires a local – an interpreter, fixer or instant journo handed a video camera – to take the risks not with him, but for him.

That may be a troubling practice (I think it is), but at least it’s not illegal, and is a question for the profession, not the police. Small comfort, but at the moment, in this business, you take it where you find it.

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