You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
No doubt some of you will be gripped by the Leveson Inquiry: Culture, practice and ethics of the press and will be shaking your heads sadly, lamenting the good old days when journalists had never heard of phone hacking or rummaging through c-listers’ rubbish bins… If you just can’t get enough, your library service can provide all kinds of background and views on the key players and issues.
New on the shelves: Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the corruption of Britain, by Tom Watson, the MP who led the questioning of Rupert and James Murdoch when they appeared before Parliament in July 2011.
Even newer is Hack: sex, drugs, and scandal from inside the tabloid jungle, by Graham Johnson, a former Sunday Mirror and News of the World journalist.
Slightly older, but very relevant, is The Fleet Street Sewer Rat, by Mark Watts. The book’s central character is Benjamin Pell, better known as “Benji the Binman”, who made his fortune – and became infamous – by raiding the rubbish of lawyers and other professional advisers to famous clients and then selling documents he scavenged to the Press – and others.
And because it’s not just the Brits whose journalistic standards slip occasionally, how about Getting it wrong: ten of the greatest misreported stories in American journalism?
As we know, though, there’s nothing new under the sun and certainly not in the world of newspaper scandals, so let’s look at a few of the more notable ones over the years with the help of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to websites.
Back in the days when journalists actually investigated and tried to put things right, the story of W T Stead (log in to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography with your library card) shows just how much courage this took. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, campaigned on many social issues, but was particularly scandalised by the prevalence of child prostitution in Victorian London, and arranged to ‘buy’ a young girl, Eliza Armstrong, of Lisson Grove in Marylebone for £5 in order to demonstrate just how easy it was. The resulting outcry led to the age of consent being increased to 16 but Stead himself was jailed for three months for abduction. Sadly, the campaigning journalist became a news story again when he died on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.
Rather less heroic was Horatio Bottomley, ‘journalist and swindler’ as the ODNB calls him. Bottomley rose from an impoverished background to become a Liberal MP, via bankruptcy and a trial for fraud. In 1906, he took over the weekly journal John Bull (‘‘without fear or favour, rancour or rant’ the masthead misleadingly read), which, as its name suggested was somewhat jingoistic. During World War I it called for all ‘Germ-Huns’ in Britain to be exterminated! Eventually he over-reached himself and a scheme in which John Bull readers bought (but did not receive) £900,000 worth of Victory Bonds led to a sentence of seven years hard labour (and lost him his seat in Parliament). On his release, his career in ruins, he eked out the last years of his life as a shambling music hall turn. You can watch some film of the unlovely Mr Bottomley at the British Pathe site (linked from the History section of the Gateway) and see him portrayed by Timothy West in the 1972 series The Edwardians, or you can read this biography. And don’t forget to check out the newspaper archives available to library members for contemporary accounts (As the Times obituary said ‘His career is full of interest not only to the moralist but to the student of moral philosophy’)
Bottomley wasn’t the only editor who went to prison though, and I doubt he’ll be the last. In 1949 Silvester Bolam, the editor of the Daily Mirror, was jailed for contempt of court after printing a story which was thought to prejudice the trial of the murderer John Haigh, known to the popular press as the Acid Bath Murderer. Bolam was philosophical about the three months he spent as a guest of His Majesty:
‘‘Most executive journalists never get the chance to think. If you have 18 hours a day by yourself for three months you have a valuable opportunity for reaching objectivity, for clearing your mind, for setting your sights.”
You can find more about the case in Publish and be damned! The Astonishing Story of the Daily Mirror though if your tastes are more gruesome you may prefer Frenzy! Heath, Haigh & Christie: the first great tabloid murderers. And don’t forget that Westminster Library members can access the entire Daily Mirror archive from their comfort of their own homes.
Next time – the politicians get their turn.
[Nicky & Malcolm]