Press Column

[NB contains RUDE WORD in direct quote from Rupert Murdoch]

A warning first. If there are any journalists reading this column, they had best sit down and blow their noses now and carefully swallow any liquids they might otherwise spray all over the newsprint. For what follows will reduce you to the paroxysmic incontinent and possibly life-threatening laughter observed by the ineffable Miles Na cGopaleen in a Dublin pub where he saw an ancient journalist laugh until "tears of pure alcohol coursed down ruby cheeks". I didn’t write it of course. It’s is a letter from Mark Skipworth, the Managing Editor (news) of the Sunday Times defending his paper in general and Chris Morgan in particular. Here goes. "The notion that reporters are somehow forced to write stories against their will is clearly absurd. No Fleet Street hack and certainly no Sunday Times journalist would agree to put their byline on a story they did not believe in. Above all the idea that facts are made to fit pre-determined stories just does not hold water. The Sunday Times has never published anything that its executives or reporters have known to be wrong beforehand."

What can one say, when the tears of pure alcohol are staunched and the room has stopped revolving? Perhaps only echo the words of Rupert Murdoch when he was told that his expert witness had changed his mind about the authenticity of the Hitler Diaries, which the Sunday Times was about to publish: "Fuck Dacre. Print!"

It is also worth looking at Mr Skipworth’s explanation for the charge that the Newsdesk "invents" stories and instructs reporters to find "the facts" to fit them. This, he says, is a misinterpretation of "the flash-of-inspiration scoop, largely the preserve of the newsdesk … It is more about a news editor, drawing on his or her instincts, suggesting to reporters that they pursue a particular line of enquiry which should reap rewards." This is not wholly untrue. It simply omits the important fact that it is the job of a specialist reporter, on newspapers that want to be authoritative, to tell the newsdesk that 90% of the time what they want is simply untrue and can’t be stood up. But it is more deeply misleading, in that all journalism, good and bad, starts with stories and then arranges the facts to fit them. If the facts ruin the story, then you have to find another one, usually much worse. That, at least, is the theory. A friend of mine who spent two years as a specialist on the Sunday Times describes the practice rather differently:

"Ninety per cent of our energy was just spent fighting the system. The newsdesk are constantly trying to crank the story up, and you have to talk to them at midnight about what they have done to the story, at one and then again at two thirty. Finally you’ll sign anything off just to get some sleep. It’s a case for Amnesty International, really"

But why cavil? Without the system on the Sunday Times we might never have got such a masterpiece of comic invention as Mr Skipworth’s letter to the Guardian.

It was, however, the Daily Express that brought the news that "Thousands of clergy face the sack as C of E struggles with the worst financial crisis in 400 years." This was the strap line, with nothing whatever to support it in the story, across a warm-up of the Church Commissioners story, given as much spin as possible, and then a little more. Take, for instance, the information that "the demand for extra cash comes from a series of financial blunders in the late eighties by the Church Commissioners whose members include the Lord Chancellor and the Chancellor of the Exchequer". Why they didn’t throw in the Prime Minister and the Lord Mayor of Surbiton, who were also members at the time I cannot imagine.

This line was repeated in a piece by the columnist Peter Oborne: "The Church of England is reaping the consequences of financial mismanagement on an epic scale. It used to be one of the best endowed of our national institutions. Now, thanks to a series of blunders of which the directors of Baring Brothers would be proud, the Church of England is financially on its knees."

This is interesting only partly because it is untrue — if anyone wants to bring me to my knees with a portfolio of investments worth £4bn they can reach me through the Church Times; there is also the fact that proving the Church Commissioners were bankrupt or corrupt was one of the great obsessions of any newsdesk worth its salt throughout the Nineties. All of them, all of us, technically speaking, missed the story completely. We couldn’t read a balance sheet well enough to understand where the money had gone. It took a man whose pension really was at stake to spot what had happened and to chip away at the story until the Financial Times broke it. In any case, if anything bankrupted the Church of England, it was not the Church Commissioners, but the inconvenient determination of the clergy to live longer and longer with no thought for the poor people who have to pay their pensions.

The Daily Express story can also be used to illuminate the pointlessness of facts. A rural church with an average attendance of 12 on Sundays would normally be used to show that the whole outfit was doomed; but if the purpose of the story is to show that the Church Commissioners are demanding money from blameless parishes, it becomes "Testimony to the deep roots that Christianity has in this rural corner of England", just because the patron is encouraging them not to pay their quota.

The Evangelical Alliance got a great deal of publicity for its survey of Hell; among the people that the Daily Mail asked about it were such notable spiritual leaders ad Egon Ronay and Frederick Forsyth. There was even one practising Anglican, Terry Waite, who does not believe that Hell is a place. But — assuming for the moment that Hell is not administered by the newsdesk of the Sunday Times — the most worrying response came from Oliver James, the psychologist. "Far worse that death, torture, starvation or any kind of physical suffering is the psychological suffering inflicted on us by being trapped in a relationship containing lies, malice and other destructive feelings — and being powerless to prevent it." This is the man who Clare Garner will shortly marry. It’s nice to know he has never been seriously ill.

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