Ruth Wishart: Journalists have always lived on the edge

They may not have hacked phones, but journalists from yesteryear had other tricks up their sleeves
They may not have hacked phones, but journalists from yesteryear had other tricks up their sleeves
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Through the years, newspapers often bent a few rules here and there in pursuit of a good story, writes Ruth Wishart

Let’s call her “Isabel”. Young, attractive, and attached to the newsdesk of a tabloid newspaper in the days when women operating outside of the ghetto of women’s pages were still in the hen’s teeth category.

She was also, intermittently and adulterously, attached to the then news editor, which did her no harm at all when the day’s news gathering rota was drawn up. But, in fairness, she didn’t need patronage. She was very adept at getting the story, very skilled at getting the right quotes from the right people.

One of her party tricks was to pop up at funerals tearfully carrying a bunch of flowers. Nothing illegal about that, of course, but a somewhat dubious game-plan given that she had never known the deceased. She calculated, rightly, that the others present at the reception would open up to a young fellow mourner, believing they could do so in absolute safety and confidence.

I mention the blessed Isabel, who by now may well have starred in her own funeral arrangements, to illustrate the fact that those who suppose there was a golden age of well-brought up journalists, playing by strict rules of engagement, probably ought to give their rose-tinted glasses a good polish.

When I was interviewing a generation of journalists for the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Enquirer – which used the hook of the Leveson inquiry to examine the state of the press past, present and future – I routinely asked them about phone hacking. In particular, I wanted to know whether they hadn’t hacked phones because they thought it beyond the pale, or just because the technology wasn’t sufficiently sophisticated in their day.

Most fessed up, with varying degrees of shame, that they might have found it difficult to resist such a seductive shortcut.

There were variations on the theme, of course. One venerable former editor expressed his irritation that the current breed of investigative journalists had broken the law not to bring down some rogue dictator or corrupt politician, but instead had wasted their technical wiles finding out which starlet was sleeping with whom, or which royal was wooing what Sloane. And, in the course of these interviews, a raft of other nefarious practices popped up.

One crime reporter gleefully recounted how he would phone over his copy from a public box – yes, children, that was what we had to do in the olden days – then remove a vital part of the mouthpiece before screwing it back together again leaving his rival to fume impotently at malfunctioning equipment five minutes later.

Another cheerfully talked about how his team gave sweeteners to the protection officers at Balmoral to pick up titbits about the first family on their Scottish hols. The same man, warming to a dangerous theme, suggested that it was commonplace on his ranch under his watch to pay local cops and a variety of figures in senior public service roles. Wasn’t that illegal, I inquired? Only if you were caught, he said.

One of his contemporaries insisted no such corruption of the boys in blue ever crossed his mind. The odd bottle of whisky and Christmas meal was the nearest he got to anything you could call “bribery”, he insisted. He operated in the days when the laws of the jungle were the only ones observed during a period of intense tabloid warfare in Scotland.

At the conclusion of major court cases, witnesses would be scooped up and bundled into cars and driven to the back of beyond to be holed up with reporters charged with getting that all-important exclusive. The joy of the exclusive was apparently redoubled when the witness in question had been signed up by the other side before you had effectively kidnapped him.

A little later, the primitive forerunners of the hacking devices came into play. Innocent little cables stuck on the phone’s receiver and plugged into a tape recorder. Of course that was only done to make sure the notes and quotes would be accurate. Of course it was…

Newsdesks had “tip-off” books where the purveyors of information were logged and then sent a tenner or two or three depending on whether or not their snippet had blossomed into a page lead.

But journalists all had – still have – their own prized contacts book – doubtless now a computerised database – in which the private numbers of valuable contacts were logged. In my early days, these were what we would now term “celebrities” since, ahem, I once functioned for a number of years as a “showbiz” correspondent. Well, you have to start somewhere.

But for the crime and chief reporters, these contacts included not just top cops, but also top criminals during periods when they had resisted the hospitality of Her Majesty. After all, if you needed information about who was planning what illegality, or, more usually, about who had pulled a previous job off, where better to forage than the murky territory of the criminal underworld? (One senior journalist told me he thought, after years of researching crime and criminals, that the skill-set of a brilliant police officer and that of a successful criminal wasn’t all that different.)

Oddly, or perhaps not, one of Rupert Murdoch’s former right-hand men was full of praise for the man whose empire encouraged the ethos which 
led to Leveson and all its works. He thought Murdoch was a press genius, and had no intention of inserting the word “evil” as a qualifying adjective.

Whatever the outcome of the report today, it would be nice to think that people like the Dowlers and the McCanns could rest easy in their beds from here on in. And good to believe that those journalists who mistake immoral practices for professional zeal will be reined in and reminded that journalists – like police and politicians – should never be allowed to suppose the laws of common decency as well as the law of the land don’t apply to them.