In Defense of Hacks

Britain's press is sensationalistic, sloppy, and scandal-prone -- and America would be lucky to have one like it.


Early on in my career as a newspaper reporter in London, a grizzled newsroom veteran summoned me over to his desk for a stern talking to. "Harnden, you’re letting the side down," he told me. "You’re bringing in all these stories but your expenses are pathetic. You need to start claiming some more." Helpfully, he pulled open his desk drawer, which was stuffed full of blank taxi and restaurant receipts.

Although it has been years since London’s newspapers moved away from the famed Fleet Street — where my newspaper, the Telegraph, had its own pub, the King and Keys, to which the news editor would run to get his sodden reporters if there was a story breaking — its spirit lives on. The late Sunday Times foreign correspondent Nicholas Tomalin was right when he once observed that the attributes most required of a British "hack" — the term most of us still use to describe ourselves — were "rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability."

Whereas our American counterparts have long viewed themselves as comparable to lawyers and doctors, we British hacks still see ourselves as practitioners of a grubbing craft rather than members of an upstanding profession. (The public, which views us as on a par with real estate agents, prostitutes and perhaps even criminals, tends to agree.) As recently as the mid-1990s, it was standard practice for British reporters to spend three hours over a liquid lunch in the pub before returning to file their copy. Stories were sometimes pronounced "too good to check." When seeking an additional element of confirmation on one story, I was told that it was "close enough for journalism" and that a bit of artful conjecture would do. An editor once dictated a quotation to me and then, winking, offered the opinion that he was sure my contacts were good enough to find someone to say it anonymously. My deadline was five minutes away.

Of course, the term "hack" has taken on a different and altogether more sinister meaning in the British press since the century-and-a-half-old News of the World tabloid imploded amid allegations of bribing of police officers and hacking into the voicemails of a missing teenager, victims of terrorism, and relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. More respectable precincts of the country’s media, meanwhile, have been rocked by the swirl of plagiarism allegations engulfing Johann Hari, a liberal wunderkind columnist with The Independent who, it has emerged, had for years been in the habit of including quotations from books and other interviews to improve his own articles. (The saga has inspired a running joke on Twitter and in Private Eye, the satirical magazine and longtime scourge of Fleet Street, which recently ran a Johann Hari interview with Winston Churchill: "I ask him how he feels about the country’s current debt crisis. ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,’ says Churchill puffing on his trademark cigar.")

Go ahead and snigger. While the American press has certainly had its share of similar disgraces, it is true that American newspaper articles are in the main more accurate and better-researched than British ones; the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal was not wrong when it ventured that Fleet Street has "long had a well-earned global reputation for the blind-quote, single-sourced story that may or may not be true." But stories in the American press also tend to be tedious, overly long, and academic, written for the benefit of po-faced editors and Pulitzer panels rather than readers. There’s a reason a country with a population one-fifth the size of that of the United States buys millions more newspapers each week.

For all their faults, British "rags" are more vibrant, entertaining, opinionated, and competitive than American newspapers. We break more stories, upset more people, and have greater political impact. (The BBC, with its decidedly American outlook on the news, has become increasingly irrelevant as its state-sponsored dominance has been challenged by Murdoch’s Sky News.) Broadsheets journalists like me view ourselves as part of the same gang as the tabloid hacks — and there is movement between the "tabs" and the more serious papers, not least because the hard-nosed skills are in demand by editors of both. If they weren’t too busy shaking their heads at us and quoting the laughably pompous Journalist’s Creed, the genteel scolds of the U.S. media might learn a thing or two.

No British hack would deny that the actions of the News of the World — better known on our side of the Atlantic as the News of the Screws and always the most disreputable of the tabloids — were a disgraceful perversion of journalism. But the bigger scandal is the actions of the public servants tangled up in the affair: the politicians who cravenly sought the backing of News International (the British publishing wing of Rupert Murdoch’s empire) and the police who failed to (and were allegedly paid not to) investigate crimes while socializing with and even employing the newspaper executives connected to those crimes.

What the politicians don’t want to talk about, of course, is their decades-long dealings with the Murdoch empire. When Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, stood up in the House of Commons this month and vented his righteous anger about the invasion of his privacy by the Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid — which published news of his infant son’s cystic fibrosis four years ago– on the face of it he cut a sympathetic figure. What Brown failed to mention, however, was that Brown and his wife subsequently welcomed then-News International CEO Rebekah Brooks to 10 Downing Street for a now-infamous "slumber party," and attended her wedding in 2009. Indeed, tabloid editors had been invited to the 2002 funeral of his 10-day-old daughter.

The real reason for Brown’s rage, of course, is that for all his crawling and scraping to News International, Murdoch decided to desert Brown’s Labour Party and instead back David Cameron and the Conservatives in last year’s election. Hell hath no fury like a politician scorned. The Tories were up to their neck in it too: In a decision that may yet force his resignation, Prime Minister Cameron selected Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor-in-chief who is deeply implicated in the hacking allegations, as his press secretary. Having a Murdoch tabloid editor inside the tent gave Cameron — an Eton-educated scion of privilege — a direct line to "the people." Ed Miliband, Labour’s schoolboy-like current leader, has seized on the opportunity to score a few points. But Miliband was one of the last people to leave News International’s recent summer party and had been as anxious as Blair and Cameron to ingratiate himself with the media mogul known as the "Dirty Digger."

In fact, for the British press, the most damaging revelation of the phone-hacking scandal is the degree to which it shows that journalists — or, to be more precise, News International executives — breached the inner sanctums of the British Establishment. A breed that had always taken pride in being made up of grubby outsiders was allowed in and made the most of the opportunity.

In the United States, journalists are already on the inside: Witness President Barack Obama’s private chats with op-ed columnists, the Washington Post and Time magazine types who effortlessly segue into White House press secretaries and the cozy consensus of Washington’s political-journalism-industrial complex. All too often, American editors, perhaps mindful of their future cocktail party invitations, would prefer their reporters stroke rather than stick it to authority. British journalistic excesses can rightly be condemned, but the American media could use a few more of them. It took the National Enquirer to bring Senator John Edwards to book — and Fleet Street would not have stood for the credulous U.S. reporting on the Bush administration that characterized the run-up to the Iraq war.

It is the very politicians who used every opportunity to ingratiate themselves with Murdoch and his acolytes who are now those calling for News International to be broken up — and for the media as a whole to be called to account. Their aim? A regulation system — probably headed up by new a government-appointed "independent" body — that produces a neutered press close to the American model. Having visited Washington and seen reporters stand up when the American president enters the room (British hacks do no such thing for the prime minister) and ask respectful, earnest three-part questions, no wonder our politicians would want more of the same.

The danger of the fevered atmosphere in Britain — where justified outrage over tabloid tactics is fast leading to a hasty public inquisition, with 10 official inquiries or investigations underway at last count — is that what Prime Minister Tony Blair once termed the "feral beast" of the media might be tamed and muzzled. Perhaps the worst outcome of all would be for it to be turned into an American-style lapdog.

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