Category Archives: Journalism

A good week for spinning

It was billed as the greatest free show in town. A battle royale (of sorts) that on Tuesday, August 19, pitched Westminster’s finest against a media baron who in the past had tyrannised them. Would Rupert Murdoch, and his heir anointed James, wither to dust under their forensic interrogation? Or would the dynamic duo turn the tables and emerge from the phone hacking scandal with a clean(ish) bill of health?

Not quite! Labour MP Tom Watson and his fellow inquisitors on the Culture, Media & Sport Committee did land the odd punch or two, while the Murdochs’ performance gave News Corp shares a 5% lift when Wall Street opened for business. Maybe it was crazily naive to hope that every question would yield a satisfactory answer, but don’t worry. There’s so much muck in the executive cupboard at the moment that it’ll be a while yet before clan Murdoch will be free of the stench.

They had to pull off the smoke and mirrors routine of a lifetime to steady the nerves of twitchy News Corp investors

A week is a long time in politics and for a corporate behemoth with a major PR problem on its hands seven days is sufficient to start repairing the damage. Because make no mistake the appearance of both Rupert and James Murdoch before a parliamentary select committee, was more about disaster management than a sincere attempt to aid the truth. These two had to pull off the smoke and mirrors routine of a lifetime to steady the nerves of twitchy News Corp investors and haul the company’s battered image off the ropes. The evidence is so overwhelming it blinds!

Rupert Murdoch said he was humbled and sorry for both the phone hacking and the misery it caused. Yet the “S” word was conspicuously absent from his vocabulary in the immediate aftermath of this scandal. Neither did he appear to show that much concern for the victims of this deplorable practice since his declared priority was Rebekah Brookes, the woman who edited the News of the World when Milly Dowler’s phone was illegally accessed!

However five days after the final edition of the News of the World hit the stands the sound of burning rubber from a hand brake U-turn was plainly audible. Hours after Brookes’ resignation as News International CEO, a contrite Rupert Murdoch held a face to face meeting with the Dowler family. Shouldn’t he have spoken to them when the allegations first surfaced? Of course, yet given his rapid mood swing from detachment to remorse, even I couldn’t help wondering which PR professional was spinning away in the background. By the time the Murdochs appeared before the committee, they were more coached than a premier league football team.

Murdoch senior came across as old, doddering and vague about such matters as how his newspapers are run, although memories of his Downing Street visits – albeit via the backdoor – were exceptionally vivid. The terrifying, bullying figure of the past was more like a flaccid bogeyman with a hearing problem, judging by the number of times the panel had to repeat its questions. Doesn’t it therefore follow that an 80-year-old man who might be losing his grip couldn’t possibly be expected to know what was going on in his own company? That’s exactly what his PR spinners wanted us to think and given the prevalence of age related adjectives in the following day’s coverage, they succeeded.

Yet there were a couple of instances when Rupert’s mask of fragility almost slipped from its moorings, notably when he thumped his hand down on the table. Fortunately his wife put a stop to that with a few whispered interventions. Let’s face it table bashing might be enough to bring a board of directors under control but it doesn’t play well with a TV audience whose sympathy you’re trying to win.

Mr Murdoch’s performance was typically spirited, like a captain fighting to maintain control of his ship. There were occasional memory lapses (another symptom of creeping old age perhaps?) and the shifting of blame onto everyone other than himself and his family, carrying with it the inference that he was just as much a victim as those whose phones had been hacked and was perhaps as deserving of our compassion. The idiot who lunged at him with a shaving cream pie actually did him a favour since it provoked an outpouring of sympathy that previously wasn’t there. No wonder his PR crew were grinning like Cheshire cats.

As an example of how to turn the tables on an accuser Rupert Murdoch’s performance was flawless. James didn’t fare too badly either. He was confident, feisty, sure-footed and almost touchingly deferential to his father; the kind of bloke who couldn’t harm a fly let alone preside over a business where phone hacking was rife. Indeed his own father claimed the very abuses that have now laid the business so low occurred before James even got his feet under the table. But James’ feel good glow is sinking faster than his tan as his evidence to the committee is now under attack.

He said he didn’t know about an email which suggested that phone hacking wasn’t just the work of a single “rogue reporter”; yet two former News of the World executives are claiming otherwise. James is standing by his testimony but it still boils down to who you believe. Since I don’t have the money to fight a libel action I won’t be staking a bet, but for some reason I can’t get the image of weasels out of my head!

In the meantime James Murdoch is digging his heels in as chairman of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, although he does face a crucial board meeting on Thursday, the day before the company is expected to post annual profits of a billion pounds.

They say that money talks so maybe it’s possible that the right amount of the green stuff could yet save his neck.

A week can be a very long time in politics, business and PR!

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Now can we have the truth please?

So the News of the World is no more! Sleazy politicians, nymphomaniac housewives, spivs, perverts and gangsters can relax in the knowledge that “Uncle Rupert’s” moral torch won’t be shining on them for some while yet. Two hundred people and 168 years of history have gone in a heartbeat. An example of how the corporate juggernaut runs over the innocent bystanders when the empire is under threat – well that’s how it looks to me anyway.

Let’s not forget the words of a certain Jesus Christ who once referred to stones being cast by those arrogant enough to think they’re without sin. Maybe too many rocks have been flung by senior News International managers with the most to hide. Had The News of the World become a dangerously toxic title? Yes! But who took it to such a lethal point in the first place? Well the jury’s out on that one but we can guess which way the fingers are pointing!

I know plenty of print journalists (some of whom worked for the Murdoch press), who neither hacked into people’s messages nor bribed police officers. Their professional standards simply wouldn’t allow them to stoop to such levels of moral squalor. I don’t know why or when the tide turned in the wrong direction at Wapping, or how it’s possible to exist in a working bubble where a culture of getting a story at any cost is more important than the human consequences. What’s so disturbing is that no low was off limits to these so called “professionals”. When they weren’t deleting the messages of a murdered schoolgirl, they were allegedly accessing those of British military personnel killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, along with the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks. Who’s next – a rape victim perhaps?

This whole nasty saga (which still has many lengths to run) has thrown up a welter of issues including press regulation, the restoration of public trust in the media and the police and why sme of our political leaders assiduously tunnelled up the cavity of a certain media tycoon who isn’t even resident in theUK! It’s a sorry day when elected representatives feel more beholden to powerful members of the fourth estate than to the ordinary men and women who voted for them. There’s nothing wrong with politicians having a relationship with the press, but it’s one that should be managed carefully.  That’s as true for politicians as it is for other public servants. When the one with the fattest wallet is pulling the strings all the time that’s when you know you’re in trouble.

So where do we go from here? Who knows, although the announcement of two new investigations (one to be led by a judge), do give rise to hope along with the progress to date of Operation Weeting (the latest Met investigation into phone hacking). One could be cynical and say the debacle of the inquiry that preceded it is a guarantee against failure. That may be true but frankly I’m not bothered, just as long as the rotten apples are emptied from the barrel: and I’m not just talking about the fruits from the lower branches of the tree. If News International is serious about atoning for its misdeeds then senior heads must roll. This is no time for hiding behind the: “I had no idea this was going on” excuse which disturbingly echoes the: “I was only following orders” defence. It’s implausible and an affront to human intelligence.

Likewise News International must stop playing corporate pass the parcel. For those who aren’t familiar with the rules let me enlighten you. Take a scandal pass it along a line of players and the one who can’t get it out of their hands fast enough is stuck with the mess! There’s been quite a bit of game playing at NI and I have a feeling that at some juncture the parcel may have to work its way back to the top of the line.

The British press will survive this appalling scandal, (bruised, slightly broken but still standing nonetheless), although that might not be true for some of the victims left behind. It was easy to turn a blind eye when a sprinkling of celebrities (some of whom most of us had never even heard of), complained their phones were being hacked. The assumption that because they were famous meant they were fair game overlooked the fact that phone hacking is illegal and that messages left on a handset are supposed to be confidential. Clearly the point had been lost on Glen Mulcaire!

The British press may be down at the moment but it isn’t necessarily out. We’ve had enough explanations as to why this may have happened (and doubtless many more will be dished up in the coming days) but it’s time to move on and bring the guilty to justice, no matter how high up they are in the food chain. There can be no real sense of closure until that element is satisfied and for those in denial of their culpability remember, you can run but you can’t hide!


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When the boot’s on the other foot

“So would you grass them up then, Yes or No?”

It was the second time I’d heard the question and a killer punch answer was proving elusive. My forehead was dotted with beads of sweat while my legs were shaking so hard I could’ve sworn that everyone in the room could hear the bones rattling. For my young interrogator, who had all but given up the pretence of hiding the larger than life smirk that had exploded across his face, my discomfort was grist to his mill. I had agreed to be interviewed for a student television project and it should have been a walk in the park. Yet here I was being placed on the back foot by someone old enough to be my son:

“It’s not a matter of Yes or No”, I replied, “It’s a bit more complicated than that!”

“You’re wrong”, he countered aggressively “It may be a hypothetical situation we’re discussing here but it’s still the legalities that count! Your mate’s suing a magazine for libel and then tells you the story’s true. Don’t you think you have a duty to report that to your editor?”

“I’m not suggesting you break the law, I’m highlighting a dilemma ”, I retorted, “Supposing it was your Mum and Dad who’d owned up? Would you expose them knowing they could be prosecuted for perjury?”

A glint of mischief lit up his dark eyes, “Do you know in the end I probably would” he said after a deliberate pause, “Because you can’t cherry pick the bits of the law that suit you best, otherwise what’s the point of it?”

I was about to respond with examples of ordinary people who’d broken the law for the good of the majority, but his lecturer ended the session before I could even blurt out a syllable. After I’d congratulated him on an interview technique that almost left me checkmated, we smilingly shook hands. I had narrowly avoided a humiliation of sorts, unlike the countless others who haven’t fared so well! I have never deliberately gone out of my way to trip somebody up on air, but I can now understand the sheer terror a guest must feel when they’re interviewed by a journalist with an axe to grind. The mind goes into overdrive whilst words are spoken with a monitored caution, as there’s always the danger an innocent remark can be turned into something incriminating. Is it any wonder that TV interviews are sometimes compared to being wrung through a contraption invented by the Spanish Inquisition?

But I must be a glutton for punishment as a fortnight after my encounter with the man who would be Jeremy Paxman, I agreed to do another interview, this time on Twitter. I didn’t really think that much about it until the event was less than a handful of days away and I was desperately trying to anticipate the areas where I was likely to be questioned.

“Don’t worry”, one of my journalist friends assured me, “You’ll breeze through it!”

“And you’re tempting fate”, I replied disconsolately, “After what that kid nearly did to me the other day I’m not so sure about anything!”

“Treat it as a one-off”, she laughed, “At least you won’t have a camera pointed in your face!”

Of course she was right but that wasn’t enough to take the edge off my caution. I’ve always been fairly comfortable with newspaper and radio interviews, but Twitter is in a different league altogether. Suppose I wrote something that was unintentionally disrespectful about a person or a place? And how could I stop the cyber flow if I accidentally forwarded a wrong message? But I needn’t have worried as the Twitter community was great, and apart from one slightly awkward question about a former work colleague, nobody asked me anything that was potentially compromising.

So having survived the experience, would I do it again? In a word, Yes! I enjoyed being in the hot seat because I actually felt I had some control over the situation. That’s important as most television interviewees, (with the exception of politicians who are media trained), are normally powerless and that makes them vulnerable to a mauling from a skilled inquisitor. I should know because I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve bypassed the blood on the carpet en route to a studio. Since I don’t fancy the prospect of being another of tomorrow’s victims, then Twitter is definitely the safer of the two options.

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Falling in love again…with the beautiful but flawed game

I’ve got a confession to make. For the third time in my life I have fallen truly, deeply, (though not quite madly), in love. It all happened rather suddenly, a bit like the way a lion pounces on a springbok, but with a lot more TLC. Apart from the fireworks at a 4th of July party, there’s nothing that even comes close to matching the intensity of what I’m feeling. So what is it that’s pushed up my pulse rate? English football of course! My romance is at an early stage, but it’s overcome more than its fair share of hurdles so the portents for longevity are already looking good. Nothing can hurt it, not even the fallout from our disastrous World Cup performance against Germany, although their 4-0 demolition of tournament favourites Argentina was some consolation.

It’s not just the army of WAGS and the diehard supporters who have an interest in the national team. Even people like me with a basic knowledge of soccer’s rules, are concerned about a sport invented in this county but in which we’re now lagging behind. How different it was all those decades ago when English football was up there with the greats and when home-grown stars like Sir Stanley Matthews, Geoff Hurst, and Bobby Charlton, dazzled a generation with their talent. Looking back it was an age of innocence and as a young girl I enjoyed a genuine bond with the beautiful game. I used to fight my siblings for the best seat in the lounge to watch the FA Cup Finals, and every Sunday afternoon rushed the household chores so that I could catch Brian Moore and the Big Match on ITV.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when the relationship turned sour, but for a time soccer and I were like an estranged couple who wanted but couldn’t quite bring ourselves to kiss and make up. Fixtures went unmarked like proverbial ships in the night while I switched affection and turned my attention to tennis instead. And it might well have stayed that way if the old emotions hadn’t been dramatically kicked back into life earlier this year. Why? Because I had bought into the notion that England’s “golden generation” could emulate their 1966 forebears and bring the World Cup back to these shores. Sadly the dream is now dead… along with the hope of seeing the trophy on display at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics.

So why was the England team such a wash out? Personally I don’t think it’s fair to pile the blame on manager Fabio Capello. There’s a major flaw at the heart of English football: talent isn’t nurtured and the interests of the Premiership take precedence over those of the national squad. It’s difficult for the Football Association to do much about the problem as the demands of the Premier League ensures fully developed talent from around the world is recruited and this stymies opportunities for young English players. But at least the FA didn’t cave into the tabloid sports writers who demanded Capello’s sacking. That would have been like sticking a plaster over a bullet wound without removing the projectile.

Maybe the Germans did us a favour when they gave us a 4-1 thrashing. Our lads performed so badly it would’ve been a travesty if the result had been the other way round. Let’s face it English football is on the ropes and in dire need of a turnaround. That means making some tough choices, but it’ll be worth it in the end if the squad that emerges from the ruins of World Cup 2010 equals the achievements of 1966. There’ll be blood on the carpet and plenty of tears, but like a loyal WAG with a Gucci handbag, I won’t cut and run. English football can count on my support and maybe like me there’ll be countless others out there who’ll reconnect with the beautiful game.

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UK elections give us a lesson in partiality

I suspect I’m not the only person in the country that kept a reasonable distance from the general election coverage. Don’t get me wrong I did follow events, but I refused to let myself drown in the television, radio and newspaper blitzkrieg. Nor was I ever accosted by canvassers offering to pay my mortgage or send me on a round the world luxury trip, if I voted for their candidate. Whether such an inducement would have influenced my decision is open to debate, but in the run up to polling day I maintained an aura of cool detachment while quite a few of my friends were getting more than just a little hot under the collar.

So when did my position of partial indifference swing to razor-sharp alertness? I can pinpoint the exact moment to when I dragged myself out of bed at 5.30am on Friday 7th May, the day after the polling stations closed. When I went to bed the night before, only a handful of results had been counted – five hours later I woke up to a hung parliament. Physically I didn’t feel any different but emotionally I was more revved up than a bull on speed. In fact I wasn’t the only one. I was on a Eurostar train en route to Paris with a group of friends, and hung parliaments were the only topic of conversation in all but one of the carriages. “How could this have happened?” they asked, “Where do we go from here?” “Do you think they’ll call another election?” By the time we reached Gare du Nord station we were no closer to finding the answer, nor were our French hosts, who were as amused by the situation as we were perplexed. As one of them succinctly put it democracy’s a great thing… except when nobody gets the result they’re looking for. C’est la vie!

One thing I certainly wasn’t looking for was the incredible backlash against the press. It always has been and always will be in the firing line of criticism, but this time there seemed to be more bullets flying around than usual. Thankfully I wasn’t involved in any of the actual coverage but it’s rather disconcerting when strangers accost you in the street and personally accuse you of bias because you happen to work in the media. I could probably deal with that if I really was guilty as charged, but since I’m not a political journalist, I think the accusation was rather unjust. Nevertheless I genuinely understand why a number of people were concerned about the press coverage. We’re intelligent enough to make up our own minds as to whom we should vote for, and we shouldn’t be railroaded into a decision by overt journalistic prejudice.

I’m all in favour of freedom of opinion, but that doesn’t include maliciously rubbishing one candidate over another or crucifying their reputation, because an editor dislikes their politics, their social background or the colour of their tie. You know you’re in trouble when spite masquerades as objectivity!

However there’s room for hope. The hung parliament predicted by the pollsters may have been bad news for Westminster, but it was good news for democracy because in the final analysis it was the will of the public rather than press opinion, that ultimately prevailed. That fact alone ought to give the media enough room for reflection, however there’s still always the possibility someone out there will use their position to try to manipulate us into voting a certain way. Old habits die-hard!

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