Toby Young suffers from Status Anxiety
Forgive me if I don’t join in the orgy of sanctimony surrounding the News of the World. If any evidence is uncovered that proves a member of the paper’s staff hacked into Milly
Dowler’s phone and deleted her voicemail messages, then, yes, he or she should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But to describe such behaviour as ‘shocking’ is to
reveal an astonishing ignorance about the tabloid profession. It’s a bit like claiming to be ‘shocked’ when a celebrity is caught cheating on his wife or a politician is caught
lying through his teeth.
The reason phone-hacking was, until recently, such an established tool of the Fleet Street trade — and I’m talking about every red-top, not just the News of the World — is because
a good tabloid journalist will stop at nothing in pursuit of a story. That’s the newsroom culture. They don’t cross the line into illegality because they’re dishonest or corrupt
or lack a moral compass. It’s because they have until 5.30 p.m. that evening to nail the story and they know that if they don’t, some other bastard will.
People unconnected with Fleet Street imagine that tabloid journalists have all sorts of sinister agendas. They’re determined to distract the masses from their wretched plight by bombarding
them with celebrity tittle-tattle or trick them into voting for whichever political party has promised to do the most to advance the business interests of their proprietor. Or they’re racists
or homophobes or misogynists. In fact, there’s only one agenda on the Street of Shame and it’s the news agenda. Getting stories — and getting them first — is the vital
thing. Everything else pales in comparison.
The reason the Milly Dowler revelations have surprised some people is because at the time of the alleged incident she was missing, presumed dead. Again, this is to reveal a breathtaking lack of
knowledge about the culture of tabloid hacks. They pride themselves on being unsentimental about the dead or the recently bereaved. Surely everyone knows that if you lose a member of your family in
a terrible accident and a tabloid reporter turns up on your doorstep, the last thing you should do is invite them in for a cup of tea? The moment your back is turned, they’ll steal a
photograph of your loved one from your mantelpiece. Remember, it used to be a rule of the Daily Express foreign desk that any journalist coming across a scene of carnage and devastation was to
announce themselves with the following words: ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’
Walter Kerr, the late New York Times drama critic, summed up this attitude when he reviewed a production of The Front Page, Hecht and MacArthur’s affectionate satire of the Chicago newspaper
industry. The central character is a no-nonsense editor called Walter Burns and Kerr described the essence of his appeal as his ability ‘to walk into a tough situation in order to be brutally
nonchalant’. This was the chief characteristic of Chicago newspapermen, their complete lack of sentimentality, and it remains the hallmark of most tabloid hacks. Any News of the World
journalist who thought he ought to temper his zeal because the story he was working on concerned a 13-year-old schoolgirl who had probably been murdered was in the wrong office.
Now, you might disapprove of some of the ‘dark arts’ that tabloid journalists use — phone hacking, for instance — but if they always played by the rules they’d rarely
get the scoop. Some of these stories are trivial and hardly of vital national importance, but others are not. Without the unscrupulous, appalling, ‘shocking’ behaviour of red-top
reporters, we probably wouldn’t know about Cecil Parkinson’s infidelity or John Prescott’s affair with his secretary. We wouldn’t know about the match-fixing antics of
Pakistani cricketers or the corruption at the heart of Fifa. Yes, the ink-stained wretches regularly desecrate the graves of dead girls, but they also speak truth to power and they do it more often
— and with more impact — than the broadsheets.
So by all means condemn the News of the World for its newsroom culture, a culture that encouraged reporters to think it was acceptable to leave no stone unturned in pursuit of an
‘exclusive’. But before you get up on your high horse, remember that without these Fleet Street foot soldiers Britain would be a more corrupt country in which the ruling class could
engage in all sorts of nefarious practices with no fear of being caught. Without its tabloid newspapers, Britain would be France.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 9, 2011