What with my best friend dying, too many speeches I’d contracted to do, too many charity gigs I’d committed to, my film on bagpipes taking me to the Hebrides, not to mention an inability to live without exercise every day, I am reaching the end of the week in a state close to exhaustion.
That state won’t be helped by another early hours charity gig tonight when I am compering an event for wonderful Labour adman Trevor Beattie who is launching a foundation in memory of his parents Jack and Ada, and an early start tomorrow to get to Burnley for the lunchtime kick-off v Leeds (oh, and to collect my BBC Football Focus predictions champion trophy – a proud moment indeed ho hum).
And amid it all on the day of Philip Gould’s funeral I heard that I have been called to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry, to which I have sent a long paper on media practices at their request, which I understand will be published on the day I appear. So between now and November 30 I will be trying to get my head in gear for that. I have given evidence to a fair few inquiries, and as Benjamin Franklin once said, fail to prepare and you are preparing to fail. So prepare I will. The inquiry represents an important moment for media and politics, and deserves to be taken seriously, a lesson Kelvin Mackenzie may have learned by now (or maybe not).
As is already becoming clear, phone-hacking may be the specific cause of the inquiry, and the Milly Dowler case the trigger that ensured politicians finally and belatedly decided to act, but problems in the culture and practices of the press go far wider and deeper, and have been building for years.
It is the Murdoch group that has found itself most in the dock, but questions are emerging that several other groups will have to face, and to which I doubt they have convincing answers. In particular I look forward to Paul Dacre of the Mail being asked to square his confident assertion in the House of Lords that they never published a story based on illegally obtained information with the fact that his papers are Number 1 and Number 4 in the league table of private detective hiring exposed by the Information Commissioner.
The Mail’s practices and culture of hate and negativity are now, alas, extending to other parts of the world. You may remember I was in Ireland when the Sunday Tribune closed, and the Irish Mail on Sunday tried to con readers with a four page wraparound pretending to be the Tribune, with their own paper inside. In human terms, think jumping into a grave and stealing a few jewels from the corpse.
Now the Mail is battling in court to justify the four-page wrap, complete with Sunday Tribune masthead. One of the reasons I always loved going to Ireland when we were in government – beyond the obvious challenge of the peace process – was that the Irish press was more serious and more committed to real political coverage. The Mail’s invasion alongside other UK titles is helping to erode that.
Newspaper publishing is a tough, competitive trade, but to try and pass yourself off as your competitor when 40 plus journalists have just lost their jobs after one of the country’s most reputable newspapers goes into receivership is immoral at best.
And amorality is what is emerging so far in the submissions by victims of media excesses to the inquiry; a total loss of any moral compass beyond sales, impact and an abuse of unchecked power.
The Tribune stunt is both shocking, yet also unsurprising. Nothing surprises me about the Mail any more. And one of the worries of the inevitable focus on phone-hacking is that while it may weaken Murdoch, the fallout could strengthen the Mail.
Don’t get me wrong. I have whacked the Murdoch empire hard on here, and burnt a few bridges in the process. Also, I hope the Murdoch phone-hackers get the justice and comeuppance they deserve. But the Tribune case going through the Irish courts is worth bearing in mind as a symbol of the Mail’s near permanent malevolence.
One role of newspapers is to provide a check on power. Today’s newspapers have become political powerbases in their own right, yet without any real checks upon them, self regulation that works to their not the public’s advantage, and an ability to control the terms of debate about themselves so that anyone who dares raise a voice against them is both targeted with negative coverage but also accused of wanting a descent to totalitarianism.
Another recent Irish example of Mailspeak. On Sunday the ‘Irish’ Mail on Sunday’s headline screamed — “Secret Deal Gives TDs €3m Raise.”
Shocking stuff in a time of austerity, until you examine the facts. The €3m was not a “rise” in salary for Irish MPs as the headline would have led most normal readers to believe. It was in fact an increase in the overall Parliamentary budget for 2012. And the sum is a fraction of the cost of Mr Dacre’s Scottish estate and his antique collection.
Irish people are quickly becoming aware the last thing this newspaper cherishes is news. In October, the Mail published a ‘news’ report on its website headlined, “Guilty: Amanda Knox looks stunned as appeal against murder conviction is rejected”.
The Mail saw nothing wrong in trying to scoop the judge before he had actually announced his verdict, which was, unluckily for the Mail, not guilty. The report and its invented quotes were removed after it became clear Knox had actually won her appeal. But what type of ‘news’ paper shows such disregard for the facts and the truth?
This paper has for too long been a thoroughly damaging influence on British life, politics and culture. If left unchecked it will also erode standards in Irish journalism and society as it feeds on its readers’ insecurities and promotes Dacre’s bitter and twisted, narrow-minded, non-inclusive, conservative agenda. Let’s hope its Irish readers wake up to reality a bit more quickly than the Brits have. And let’s hope their little Tribune stunt catches the eye of the inquiry too. The word fraud springs to mind.