Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Cambridge Union Address - May 2012

Since I posted on my visit to address the Cambridge Union last year, there have been 7,020 hits on that post. There have also been many hundreds of emails asking, "Well what did you actually say?"

Well here it is, for the first time. Some of it historic but much of it I hope, an insight into the workings of Fleet Street and News International, our failings, our future and our need to reform.

Since then, I have gone on to launch TalentGB, an on-line directory of artistes' showreels.

Tonight, I stand before you in the vortex of the most cataclysmic storm in the history of newspapers.

I’d like to start by giving you an idea of what it’s like to be caught up in this storm. And then analyse how we arrived at this crisis before outlining how I believe only a wholesale tabloid revolution will save this part of our industry from extinction.

I will also discuss why I believe it is important that we have a flourishing tabloid industry, illustrating it with examples such as the cricket match fixing expose, the jailing of Jeffrey Archer for perjury and the David Beckham scoop, all of which won major industry awards.

In the interests of balance, I’ll also include perhaps the most famous example of where it was perceived we got it spectacularly wrong – the Max Mosley expose.
For the past three years, four of the country’s most powerful institutions have been ranged against us and, on occasions, all at once against me.

The first is Scotland Yard. Many of my former colleagues at News International – and myself included – are on bail as the biggest police operation in British criminal history, investigates allegations of phone hacking, corruption and perverting the course of justice.

The second is the Judiciary. The Leveson Inquiry is scrutinising journalistic ethics and practices and looks set to impose upon us independent, external regulation.

The third is Parliament and in particular, the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which has conducted a lengthy investigation and concluded there was a huge cover-up on phone hacking at News International at the highest levels of the business. And they have branded Rupert Murdoch as being unfit to run a major international company.

At the Cambridge Union

Finally, there is the Press. Even some of my colleagues in the media have mounted aggressive investigations into News International’s working practices, leveling damning allegations against it – some true, some false.

At times I have felt more than a little overwhelmed to have such a powerful group of institutions firing their guns at me – Scotland Yard, Parliament, the Judiciary and the Press. And then finally, last September when it unfairly dismissed me, my employer of 20-odd years, News International.

Normally, when someone cries, “Everyone’s out to get me!”, we dismiss them as paranoid, delusional fools. When I say it, people say, “Hey that’s not true Nev. Your mum quite likes you!”

Last week on Radio 4’s PM programme, Eddie Mair caught me on the hop when he pressed me over and over to reveal my mental state because of all this. I nonchalantly replied that I was, “Just soldiering on”.

If the truth be told, last September, when my back was firmly against the wall and the firing squad was assembled in front of me, a huge black cloud appeared above my head, Eeyore style.

In fact, I reached such a nadir of gloom, as to make King Lear sound like an hysterical optimist, under the influence of laughing gas.

There are only a few places where you can get away with a gag like that!

With apologies to Tom Sharpe for misquoting him.

For me, turmoil has become the new ‘normal’. When tranquility eventually returns, I expect I’ll be slightly spooked by the whole idea.

Sadly, for some of my colleagues, the pressure has proved too much. Three have attempted suicide. And there have been two heart attacks, one, tragically, fatal.

So there you have the crisis in a nutshell. For me personally, for my profession and for our industry as a whole.

We in the print media are at a crossroads and if we choose to carry on the path we have trodden so doggedly and in the same clothes, for more than a century, tabloid newspapers will cease to exist in a generation.

The bond of trust with our readers has been shattered over the past few years. And our style and presence is antiquated.

In the days of the internet, tablets, blackberrys, iPhones and apps, it strikes me as odd that a tabloid newspaper is an often damp piece of paper shoved through our letter boxes by a schoolboy on a bike at 7am to be read by dad on the train. Let’s face it, we’re hardly cutting edge.

And if our readers don’t like the tone of what they read or don’t trust it, they will keep falling away in the millions until paper upon paper, we fail and vanish from the streets.

So back to the crossroads. We carry on our well trodden path at our peril. To survive, we must alter our course.

If we don’t, Lord Justice Leveson, wielding his mighty power, buttressed by Prime Ministerial patronage, will surely foist it upon us.

To agree with this position I realise you need to accept the need for reform exists. You either do or you don’t. I do.

The Leveson Inquiry should be the spark that ignites a tabloid revolution.

In fact, without radical reform, tabloid newspapers will slowly fade from any meaningful prominence in our lives. They are dying as we speak.

I am a huge admirer of our industry. And a fierce and loyal protector of those who inhabit it. But I am not blind to our ancient style and tactics which make us an anachronism on the modern media landscape. Privately, I know many of us feel this way.

The need to modernise and revolutionise our technology – iPads, paid-for internet content etc – I’ll argue for later in this talk.

But the case for tone and style has been largely overlooked.

Tabloids which were once merely strident and bold have stepped over the edge, inhabiting dark agendas of hate and gratuitous criticism.

We are like the cocky bigot at the dinner party. Embarrassing and out of step with the assembled guests who thought they had invited Mark Zuckerberg but got Sid James instead.

Tabloids are losing the bond of trust and loyalty with their readers, especially the young who see our tone and style as crass, heavy handed and old fashioned.

To the under 25s, we are as cutting edge as Alvar Lidell reading the BBC news on the wireless in a dinner jacket.

Vicious character assassinations, bogus public interest defences, gross invasions of privacy, sensational misleading headlines, cliché ridden copy. They don’t like the cut of our jib. And they don’t buy us in numbers that matter anymore.

How many of you here buy and read any newspaper as opposed to reading one on line?
And you are among the most literate and inquisitive people in our country. But you are in your teens and early twenties most of you.

You don’t like the cut of our jib.

And after a raft of phone hacking admissions and allegations, we are no longer seen as the gruff but dependable watchdog. 

The dog developed a vicious bite, attacked the readers and they no longer want him in their home.

But we cannot simply transfer our existing tabloid model onto the new, burgeoning technology in much the same way as the BBC could not hope to modernise itself by putting brilliantined old Alvar on their website.

To do so will see the continued, inexorable decline in our readership and our inevitable demise.
Our industry desperately needs to find a new voice if it wants to continue being heard.

Leveson will provide a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to look at ourselves squarely in the mirror and see all our faults and foibles laid bare and put them right. We delude ourselves if we look in this mirror and believe we are still, “the fairest of them all”.

The criticisms which have been hurled our way are sometimes exaggerated, and often one-sided. But many are painfully accurate.

We need to rein in our worst excesses, re-establish a bond of trust with the reader and refine each newspaper’s unique personality and attitude which has remained frozen since the 1950s and 60s.

It is not just our public face which needs modernising. Many tabloid newspapers are antediluvian to their hidden cores and management styles are of another age.

I still cringe at the memory of one poor freelance who was on a shift and a little late with some copy. In full earshot of the office, the executive walked over to her desk and told her: “Put your coat on, go home, don’t come back.”

Another gimlet-eyed executive told a well respected staffer being sent on a big buy-up: “Your wife’s just had a baby, you have a big mortgage, don’t f*** up! You need this job.”

And I am unable to forgive News International for making one of our most respected and valued colleagues redundant when his young wife was battling a life threatening illness.

Staff brutality like this takes place on a regular basis. When I was news editor, I was asked to attend several News International seminars organised by HR where the chief theme was, “How to Sack Your Staff and Not Give Them a Pay-off”.

The irony of that, given my current position, is not lost on me!

I console myself with the memory of being called as a witness to one sacking and telling them, in front of their intended victim, exactly what I thought of their bogus 'disciplinary'.

For more than quarter of a century, trade unions have not been recognized at News International and it shows.

Although I can never claim to have been bullied at work, I witnessed countless others who were. And that climate of fear can create a culture of risk and rule bending in the interests of self-preservation.

The case for the National Union of Journalists gaining a strong foothold back in News International has never been stronger and I urge all my colleagues there to ensure that it is.

I expect Leveson to push all our problems to the surface and we ignore them at our peril.

It remains to be seen if the Inquiry is up to the job of course but we must hope that it is.
I have a few criticisms.

A few random, crank witnesses seem to have been called merely because they are visible. One was an industry outsider who loathes tabloid journalism. Everything he related to the Inquiry was based on supposition and hearsay. The fact that he had written a book based on all of this seemed bizarrely to qualify him as an expert witness. And the Inquiry lapped up his bile.

But it was a reporter’s appearance which did most to damage the credibility of Leveson and his team.
They smiled indulgently as he poured out his vicious parody of tabloid journalism. Worse, they failed to step in when he began to hurl unfounded allegations against Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, seriously prejudicing any possible criminal proceedings against them.

When I took the stand and offered an alternative account, it was met with sneers.

The Leveson Inquiry must avoid at all costs the nervous belief that its raison d'être will only been served if it finds fault with us and that many millions of pounds of public funds will have been wasted if he concludes nothing is amiss in the tabloid world. 

Certainly, Lord Justice Leveson looked strangely unfamiliar with our management structures when he appeared bewildered by my assertion that a chief reporter would have no influence upon whether or not video footage of Max Mosley should be up-loaded to our website and whether Mr Mosley should or should not be contacted prior to publication.

That would be like me assuming it will be one of Lord Justice Leveson’s solicitors who will be reaching conclusions, making recommendations and writing a report when the Inquiry ends and not the learned man himself.

The Inquiry needs to get a firm grip on how newspaper decisions are made and who makes them if it is to have any real understanding of how our industry works and make any meaningful criticisms of it.

It is perhaps too much for us to expect a blemish free Inquiry during thousands of hours and millions of spoken and written words. 

The calibre and quality of the Leveson Inquiry team is impeccable.

But they must ensure they give no-one the excuse to brand it a “circus” or “anti-tabloid”, words which have already been bandied about a little too often.

We need a tabloid press. It is a massive force for good, as the Daily Mail’s bold coverage of the Stephen Lawrence murder has shown.

We need Leveson to allow us to see ourselves as we are, to move on and reform. And there must be the desire within us to do so.

But he must ensure the mirror he holds before us is shining and true and not a twisted fairground distortion.
Lord Justice Leveson may help us alter our style and approach – the cut of our jib. But he can’t alter the platform upon we display our wares. The piece of paper shoved through our letter box, or a nice shiny tablet with lots of apps.

It is the shiny tablet which will replace us. And paid-for websites. More of this later.

Last week, the Culture, Media and Sport select committee published its report into phone hacking at the News of the World and it plunged New International – which controls 40 per cent of the national press – into further turmoil.

Some of the top executives at the News of the World and News International were branded as orchestrating a cover-up and withholding information from the committee, raising the possibility of being found in contempt of Parliament.

But the most damning and damaging finding was that Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corporation, News International’s parent company, was unfit to run a major corporation.

This is a dangerous parliamentary precedent and one which imperils not only the tabloid industry, but the whole freedom of the press.

The decision was split rigidly along party lines with the Labour party members leading the charge to trash the reputation of the most successful media mogul in mine or anyone else’s lifetime.

It’s no surprise to learn that Labour is still bitter about losing Murdoch’s backing at the last election.

Powerful, successful industry magnates, including multi billionaire media moguls, have always divided public opinion. Murdoch has always been a bogeyman of the left.

But when our politicians allow their prejudices to cloud their judgement and overstep their remit by potentially weakening the leader and creator of the biggest section of the free press in the world, we are entering dangerous waters.

It is up to the readers and ultimately the shareholders, to decide whether Rupert Murdoch is a fit and proper person to run News Corporation – not disgruntled, dogma ridden politicians.

Let us not forget, if it were not for Murdoch, the Times and the Sunday Times would not exist. These great British institutions would have closed 30 years ago for good.

Over the years, Murdoch has pumped hundreds of millions of pounds into these loss making products to keep them afloat.

I wonder which other multi-billionaire media mogul with an overwhelming desire to burn millions of pounds every year do they imagine will want to take his place if Murdoch sells up and ships out?

And if the Labour members of the CMS committee believe they were doing the British press a favour by attempting to hole Murdoch below the waterline, they were naive in the extreme.

The British press is in enough peril as it is, without our elected politicians manufacturing a further crisis.
An extreme example of political function being contaminated by personal prejudice came during my meeting with Tom Watson, a member of the CMS committee at my home in October last year.

As we explored a way for me to provide written evidence to the committee’s inquiry into phone hacking, one story made his ears prick up.

He was keen to know if he had been placed under surveillance.

I informed him, in the strictest confidence that News International executives (not News the World executives you will note) had ordered round the clock surveillance on members of the CMS committee when it began its investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World.

But all the reporters involved had balked at the idea, considering it to be espionage, not journalism. The journalists sabotaged the plan through by deliberate procrastination and the plan was shelved.

Mr Watson entered my home an MP. An hour later he left a best selling author.

He broke our confidential pact, sold his committee credentials down the river and published the information in his book. Mr Watson was willing to risk a lot of professional opprobrium if it meant he could further damage Murdoch, who was unaware of the jettisoned plot in the first place.

This is a further example of how politicians should be regarded with scepticism when they pronounce on the merits of Rupert Murdoch and his stewardship of his newspapers. Much of it is born from self-aggrandisement or else springs from immature left wing dogma spouted in the less sophisticated Junior Common Rooms which roughly goes, “I am a socialist – therefore I must believe all policemen are facists, Princess Diana was killed by the Duke of Edinburgh and Rupert Murdoch eats babies for breakfast”.

The revelation however, does illustrate one of the most vicious attempts at character assassination in the history of British journalism.

And it was the executives at News International – not the News of the World - who tried to orchestrate it in order to glean negative information about the MPs’ personal lives in order to embarrass and discredit them and make them back off from their inquiry.

It was an appallingly misjudged plan and a shameful chapter in News International’s history. But there are dozens of similar examples I could site over the past 20 years where News International has tried to manipulate events in a similar fashion.

Earlier this year, the company used a hideous expression to describe their internal clean-up operation on their newspapers. They said they were, “draining the swamp”.

And there has been a consistent attempt by News International to try to clean its own face by distancing itself from the News of the World and pretending all the company’s problems are buried in the newspaper’s coffin to quietly rot and disappear.

This is akin to arguing that it wasn’t Richard Nixon who was responsible for Watergate but the agents who planted the bugs.

The “swamp”, if that’s what News International wish to call it, was designed by them, polluted by them and infested by them.

We may spend hours debating how newspapers should change and alter course. But we may as well save our breath, if the companies which own them remain so machiavellian in their approach yet pretend they are innocent bystanders.

It is not the newspapers which are the swamps but the companies which run them, rule them and govern them.

However, we are noticing a softening around the edges since the Leveson Inquiry began.
The Sun’s Sunday edition has lost a lot of the News of the World’s hard edges. There are certainly fewer investigations into people’s private lives.

Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter for debate. But the softer edged Sun is still selling more than 2 million copies a week and is just an infant publication. So the readers obviously approve.

Has anyone ever noticed that since the closure of the News of the World, no MPs have had any extra marital affairs?

OK, so the scandal content has gone down and the softer, female friendly story count has gone up, coaxing in thousands upon thousands of women readers who had shunned the News of the World which focused heavily on engaging with male readers.

Many now see the Sun’s Sunday edition as being a paper they would feel happy to leave out on the coffee table for the kids to read, whereas the same could not be traditionally said of the News of the World which specialized in exposing the dark, seamy side of life.

Other newspapers are beginning to show restraint in their news coverage. I doubt we will ever see the gratuitous and appalling vilification of Christopher Jeffries again.

Mr Jeffries, a neighbour of Joanna Yeates, a young woman murdered in Bristol, was branded a main suspect and his life turned upside down – his only crime his eccentricity and an uncanny resemblance to the late Quentin Crisp.

This is when Fleet Street turns feral. And the readers don’t like it. Under the scrutiny of Lord Justice Leveson’s microscope, this has been made abundantly clear to us all.

The outright hostility to the McCanns by certain sections of the press has also highlighted how dark agendas pollute papers and poison readers.

The twisted insinuation that this grieving couple had some involvement in the death of their daughter Madeleine was one of the most offensive newspaper agendas in recent times.

If you go onto twitter you will see the legacy of that offensive and discredited news agenda – thousands of misinformed members of the public who still obsessively believe Gerry and Kate to be guilty.

That section of the press has added to the already intolerable burden of pain endured by the McCanns.
Like phone hacking, dark agendas such as these have no place in modern newspapers. The public don’t like it. They may not force them to break their reading habit and cancel their subscriptions. But they we will not persuade the new generation of readers – people like yourselves – to buy us in any significant numbers. You don’t like it and you won’t accept it.

There have been hundreds of cases like Christopher Jeffries and the McCanns over the decades. Since the Leveson Inquiry began, editors have been exercising a restraining hand.

When Leveson has finished, we need to maintain this new dawn of enlightenment or face extinction as the new generation of internet-savvy readers go to the web for their many sources of news.

The regard to matters of privacy has been drawn into sharper focus of course since the News of the World published its investigation into Max Mosley’s sado-masochistic orgies with call girls.

I was the author of that story and it was to have huge ramifications for the industry, far beyond what we could have ever expected.

Mr Justice Eady ruled that we had breached his privacy because there was no evidence of a Nazi theme in the orgies. It was, in his opinion, a common or garden orgy and therefore his business alone and no one else’s.

We disagreed. We argued there were multiple examples of a Nazi theme running throughout and as the elected head of the FIA, his 100 million members, many of whom would have been Jews, had a right to know. We fervently believed we had the strongest possible public interest defence.

We lost and had to pay him £60,000 in damages, a record for a breach of privacy case.

This had a chilling effect on newspaper investigations and since then, many have held back if there is even the remotest chance of a privacy action.

Many outside the industry see this as a good thing.

If there is a positive to take out of the Mosley case, it is that it has helped editors sharpen their focus on matters of privacy.

And it may, inadvertently end up giving the readers the softer tabloid I believe they, especially the younger readers, prefer.

Lest anyone think I am taking credit for this, let me say this is purely down to the ruling of Mr Justice Eady and the tenacious Mr Mosley.

So how do we modernise?

I have identified our tone and style as being antiquated and out of step with the youth of today.

But also, the medium by which we transmit our news – this piece of paper shoved through the letter box by the schoolboy after being loaded onto juggernauts and transported by road around the country.
It’s primitive, archaic, inefficient and involves huge cost.

I don’t think we will see it survive the next 10 or 15 years.

Very soon, with newspapers uploading increasing amounts of content on-line, the rise in the use of tablets and apps, very soon newspapers will become obsolete.

Already, reading a newspaper app on a tablet is an enjoyable experience. It’s clean and clear and to the many millions of us who now spend our lives on screen, the format is more familiar.

In order to survive, newspapers must throw as much finance as they possible can into increasing the quality of their on-line presence to capture the younger generation of readers who will decide the fate of our industry in the next decade.

Those who fail to do so, and many newspapers are guilty of this, will be the ones who fall by the wayside.
The future of newspaper journalism in Britain will be forged in the furnace of revolutionary technology and invention and fierce on-line competition and those who don’t like the heat will melt from the scene.

Already we can see the superb quality of the Daily Mail’s formidable on-line presence which overshadows all its tabloid rivals, many of whom appear not to be even in the race yet.

The Times, with News International’s bold move to charge for on-line access, is surely the financial business model all must eventually follow.

Journalism is an extremely costly business and cannot be given away free.

This is where the BBC is at a huge advantage to its competitors. Its excellent news website is produced at great cost. But it is funded by the licence payer.

If it remains free to access during this do or die revolution, which I maintain will decide the future of our newspaper industry in the next few years, it could hasten the demise of some of our most historic titles.

The playing field has to be leveled and the regulators need to take a serious look at the BBC’s free news website and decide whether it enjoys a grossly unfair and destructive advantage in the market place. I believe it does.

Tabloid newspapers, when they are properly run and responsibly edited are a massive force for good.

We only have to look at the biggest stories of the past few years to see that. The News of the World investigation into Jeffrey Archer saw the author and Peer jailed for perjury. The Pakistani cricket, match fixing scandal was also exposed by the News of the World. And the Daily Mail’s remorseless campaign to see justice for Stephen Lawrence finally put his killers behind bars last year.

Ladies and gentlemen our future is in this very room and if this list is to carry on, we must radically reform and move with growing confidence to embrace all that technology can offer and ensure our tabloid industry, which was once the envy of the world, is once again a beacon of truth which you would want to read. And you would be proud to work for.


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