Magazine article The Spectator

Worse Than Hacks

Magazine article The Spectator

Worse Than Hacks

Article excerpt

OK, we get it. We're scum. Lowest of the low. If nothing else comes from the Leveson inquiry, at least the British public may be assured that its views of the press were right all along: as poll after poll has shown, I and my comrades in ink enjoy a social standing somewhere south of traffic wardens, tax collectors and dumpers of cats into wheelie bins.

We have lived with it for so long that, frankly, a few intercepted phone messages will not make much difference. So be it.

Nevertheless, I would embrace my stigma a little more readily without the hypocrisy of that same British public, so widely in thrall to 'the scoop' that most of them will play dirtier than I ever have, simply to be part of it.

During more than 30 years in print, radio and television, I have seen unqualified fools muscling in upon a trade that, despite themselves, they find devilishly cool. Rather in the manner of one who watches medical soaps and then believes himself ready and able to 'scrub in', the first giveaway is the language.

Of course, the disclaimer comes first - 'You can't believe a word you read!' - but, with that, they're off.

Nobody these days says, 'Don't tell anyone'; they say, 'Don't quote me.' Or, 'Off the record.' They say 'embargo' and 'contact' and 'source' and 'Chatham House rules' (which they always, always get wrong: the dingbats think it means you cannot repeat what you have been told); sometimes they even tap the side of their noses, 'say-namore, nah-mean?', in a grotesque parody of how they believe we talk.

Logic would suggest that, given the contempt in which we are apparently held, we might be given a wide social berth. Tragically, far from it. Even if I think the idea that a journalist is never off duty is as rude as showing a bunion to a doctor over cocktails, nobody else does.

First come the avid questions. Do you know the Blairs' secret nobody could print? (Yes.) Did you see the photos of Diana dead? (No, but I know a man who did. ) How do you hack a phone? (How long have you got? ) Is Kate pregnant? (How the bloody hell should I know? ) Then, worse, we move to their hot tips, their hold-the-front-pagers;

gifts upon which I am expected to leap with unparalleled enthusiasm. Suffice to say these are, without exception, boring, old, parochial or untrue.

Still, the eyes shine with the palpable thrill of it all; the very idea that something they say, or they do, might earn its very own headline. Sometimes, obviously, there is hope of financial reward. I took a call, for example, from someone who wanted to know the likely price for his days as a drug dealer for [insert name of front-bencher of your choice]. I am no fan of the Rt Hon in question, but felt real shock at the casual willingness to destroy the career of somebody who probably never thought of him as other than a friend who once provided a few spliffs.

Mucky as it is, that is none the less easier to understand than the great number who are willing to snitch but without payment.

Charlotte Church, at the Leveson inquiry, spoke of the 'shadow network': the drivers, hotel staff or hospital workers who will make tip-off killer calls. She, however, clearly thought they were simply cashing in; my experience says it ain't necessarily so. …

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