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TUESDAY 16 JULY  2024

*

The ruinous litigation and reckless news outfits that link Fox News with Maddy


By RICHARD DISMORE

Sometimes news is like a runaway train, unstoppable, out of control, hurtling towards its doom.


Two cases in point: Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which has just paid out $787.5 million in the biggest libel settlement in history; and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the reporting of which cost British newspapers hundreds of thousands of pounds.


The stories are 16 years apart and have little in common except for two things – ruinous litigation and reckless news organisations trying to wring every last ounce of drama out of the facts to boost ratings or circulation.


No doubt the calculation drilled into every tabloid editor was made: what’s the downside? In each case, editors, news desks, lawyers and managements got it catastrophically wrong.


Fox had repeatedly suggested that voting machines made by a company called Dominion Voting Systems were part of an alleged plot to rig the 2020 US presidential election, in which Donald Trump was ousted from the White House.


Dominion’s lawyers argued that Fox broadcast the claims knowing they were false for fear of losing viewers to rival networks.


Fox claimed it had done nothing wrong and had merely reported newsworthy statements by Trump and his team, as was their right under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.


It is harder to sue successfully for defamation in America than it is in Britain. Plaintiffs must prove that a publisher acted with malice when he made a false statement. No such hurdle exists in Britain.


Dominion obtained text messages and statements from Fox executives and presenters in which, according to The Times – another Murdoch news outlet –  “they appeared scornful of voter fraud claims but fearful that their viewers were becoming enraged at the network for refusing to air them”.


Fox News settled the $1.6 billion claim out of court at the eleventh hour, as lawyers prepared to make their opening statements.


Afterwards, Dominion’s Chief Executive John Poulos said Fox “has admitted to telling lies… that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees and the customers that we serve.”


Ominously, his lawyer said that this was “not the end.” Stephen Shackelford added: “We have got some other people who have got some accountability coming towards them.”


The Madeleine McCann case was different. The fuse was slower to burn but it still ended in an explosion that engulfed Express Newspapers and others.


Madeleine – Maddie as she became known – was just three years old when she disappeared from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal. Incredibly, she would be 20 next month.


She was a pretty child, the daughter of two doctors from Leicestershire, one a GP, the other now a distinguished heart consultant.


The couple, Kate and Gerry McCann, had left Madeleine in their holiday apartment while they went for dinner with a group of friends in a restaurant only about 50 yards away. They checked on the children throughout the evening but at ten o’clock Kate discovered that Maddie was gone.


Fleet Street was soon there in force and at first the reporting was sympathetic and compassionate. But the tone changed when Portuguese police began briefing against the McCanns. The accusation was that they had accidentally harmed Madeleine, then covered it up.


The couple were made “arguidos”, a status that has no equivalent in the UK. It is usually translated as “suspect” and is often a precursor to charges being laid. I always thought it was this word that got us all into trouble; a “person of interest” might have been more accurate and less inflammatory.


But it would not have sold papers like “suspect” did.


In any case, the story took on a life of its own. Twitter was spitting with malice and the saga was catnip to readers. Every time police sources were quoted suggesting that the McCanns were guilty, sales rocketed.


Peter Hill, Editor of the Daily Express, was aware of this, of course, and so was his domineering proprietor, Richard Desmond, who would press his editors to come up with stories on Madeleine.


This is how it worked. Desmond (like all proprietors) would study the sales figures but often he would attribute a good day or high-selling period to a particular story.


If the paper splashed on something else and sales fell, he would let the Editor know, in no uncertain terms, that they had failed and demand to know why they weren’t working from the playbook.


The earliest example of his fixation on a single story was house prices. The Daily Express would splash on the national obsession shamelessly, day after day. Chris Williams, a fine journalist, was Editor and knew that if he wished to continue in the role his news desk would have to scour the land for new angles on the story.


The same thing happened with Madeleine. Hill ran the story almost continuously. The splashes became ever more credulous and bizarre.


Those that appeared in the Sunday Express were always carefully legalled and I assume the same applied to the Daily but the effect was cumulative.


For months there was no comeback. The McCanns wanted to find their daughter and felt that they needed to keep Maddie’s name on everyone’s lips. If that meant enduring a monstering, so be it.


Soon after Maddie vanished, they had set up Madeleine’s Fund to finance the hunt and money poured in, including £250,000 from the News of the World and the same amount from rag trade mogul Sir Philip Green.


The cash was used to hire private detectives and PR firms. Government press officers got involved and one of them, Clarence Mitchell, eventually resigned to work for the McCanns full-time.


It was the strangest time. The story transfixed the nation, indeed the world, and fed off itself. Completely innocent people, including a British-born estate agent called Robert Murat, who lived in Praia da Luz, were drawn in, worked over and spat out.


Then (and feel free to sing along) the runaway train came down the track and she blew.


With the Madeleine Fund down to its last half million, the McCanns looked for other sources of cash. They hired the Carter-Ruck law firm to look at “wildly and grossly defamatory” stories in the Daily and Sunday Express and the Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday.


In March, 2008, the McCanns accepted an apology and £550,000 in damages from Express Newspapers, which their lawyer said would go straight to the Madeleine Fund. The Express also had to pay the McCanns’ costs.


Adam Tudor, of Carter-Ruck, said that more than 100 “seriously defamatory” articles were published. "The general theme of the articles was to suggest that Mr and Mrs McCann were responsible for the death of Madeleine.”


But some falsely suggested that Madeleine had been “sold” to ease financial worries and that the McCanns were involved in wife-swapping orgies.


Later, in his 2011 inquiry into Press standards, Lord Justice Leveson would call the articles “complete piffle”.


The Express group was also sued by the McCanns’ friends – known as the Tapas Seven – who were on holiday with them. That cost Richard Desmond a further £375,000, which also went to the Madeleine Fund.


Madeleine has never been found and is presumed dead, though her parents cling to hope.


The prime suspect for her abduction – if that is what it was – is now Christian Bruckner, 45, a German drifter and convicted rapist, who used to live on the outskirts of Praia da Luz.


Scotland Yard says a call was made to his mobile phone, which was near the McCanns’ holiday apartment, an hour before Madeleine disappeared. He has denied being involved.


Bruckner is serving seven years in a German prison for rape and could be free in 2026. Last week he was due to face trial imminently in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, charged with sex attacks on two girls and three women in Portugal between 2000 and 2017.


But the trial was halted after judges accepted the offences did not fall within their jurisdiction. Prosecutors are hopeful that a higher court will overturn the ruling.


Maybe this extraordinary story still hasn’t hit the buffers.


Richard Dismore is a former deputy editor of the Sunday Express


Simple cock-up leaves People’s Daily editor paralysed with fear











Some cock-ups pass unnoticed; others have life-changing consequences.


Spare a thought, then, for the Editor of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (circulation: everyone, or else).


The poor sap had to recall millions of copies because a Page 5 commentary that detailed China’s achievements under autocratic ruler Xi Jinping left his name out.


The errant sentence read: ‘The central government with comrade at the core assesses the situation.’ Xi’s name should have been inserted after the word comrade.


According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), ‘The error has caused the entire official propaganda apparatus to be paralysed with fear about the potential fallout.’


There is speculation that the Chief Editor, Tuo Zhen, could be purged over the mistake, although I imagine some purging took place as he received the phone call pointing it out.


The writer, who used the pseudonym Ren Ping, is also up to his neck in muck and, quite possibly, bullets. His fate, says RFA, ‘depends on the mood of Xi Jinping himself’.


As a former sub-editor, I beg you to pray with me also for the practitioners of our craft on the People’s Daily.


The article, snappily titled ‘Unity and struggle are the only way for the Chinese people to forge a historical undertaking’, would have gone through five or six rounds of editing before publication. Despite this, no one spotted the calamitous error.


It all puts me in mind of a night on the Backbench of the Daily Express.


In accordance with People’s Daily style, I shall omit the name of comrade the Night Editor. Let’s just say he is one of the nicest men you could wish to work with and fastidious in his attention to detail.


We were all working meticulously on this evening because the Chairman and the Editor had been invited to a function at Headington Hill Hall, home of Robert Maxwell, the Mirror’s chairman. (He had the Italianate mansion on a lease from Oxford City Council and liked to refer to it as the “best council house in the country.”)


Leading figures in Fleet Street, politics and the City were assembled there, resplendent in black tie, their ladies in silk finery. Champagne flowed.


Orders had been left that bundles of the Daily Express were to be delivered to the mansion so that guests of Captain Bob, the robber baron, could read it and marvel at the quality of the journalism. A van was on standby to speed to the Oxfordshire countryside.


The paper had gone off stone, the ropey early copies had been run off and the driver was revving his engine in the vanway when the Night Editor spotted the cock-up.


It is so long ago that I can’t remember what it was … but it must have been a beauty. Careers were teetering. The Fleet Street equivalent of disgraced exile to Outer Mongolia beckoned.


The Backbench with comrade at the core assessed the situation. Now, anyone who has ever tried to reverse carefully laid plans on a hot-metal newspaper knows that it’s easier to turn an oil tanker round in the Pool of London.


But this crisis demanded a speedy solution. We had to get clean copies of the Express racing up the M40 – without compromising the vanloads destined for breakfast tables in Cornwall.


But our hero was equal to the task and went about it with the quiet, measured calm that was his hallmark. (I imagine it helped that some production executives sensed that their jobs might also be in jeopardy.)


He phoned the Head Printer and told him to expect a slip. Next, the Circulation Manager, who told the van driver to hold his horses. Then the Production Manager to ensure ramming speed.


I don’t know what it cost him. In those days, either you pulled in favours, if you were lucky enough to be owed any; or you sold your soul, like that supplicant in The Godfather who asks Don Corleone to wreak vengeance on his enemies.


The Mob boss, running fingertips up his jowls, replies: “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift.”


Anyway, it worked. Unlike Tuo Zhen’s, our cock-up passed almost unnoticed.


The Chairman and the Editor were spared any embarrassment at the hands of the cruel megalomaniac Maxwell. His guests got their news hot off the presses. And the rest of the papers caught the train to the West Country.


The People’s Daily should have had such a comrade Night Editor.


Next time we meet for lunch in Covent Garden I must ask him what the cock-up was.

*****

A herogram to the sub-editor on The Times Magazine who handled the story about a doting mother’s imagined emails to her son’s new drill sergeant. The pull-out quote read: ‘I realise Callum’s in the army now but he does like his toast cut into triangles.’

*****

So the Duke of Sussex is going to appear in the witness box in his High Court action against Mirror Group Newspapers, the Press Association reports.


Is this wise? Not that I care much about Prince Harry’s welfare. But the copy that comes from his limelight moment could be terrific.


Harry is claiming damages over alleged unlawful information gathering at the Mirror’s titles, for which read phone hacking.


Julian Santos, Harry’s brief, said all the witnesses on their side would give evidence in person. The trial is due to start in May and Harry would probably be called in early or mid-June.


There is a reason why the Royal Family generally stays out of the courtroom and always out of the witness box. And it was perfectly illustrated by Prince Andrew’s televised grilling by the BBC’s Emily Maitlis.


Andrew was arrogant enough to think he could charm, or bluff, or lie his way out of the mess he was in over his friendship with the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and his accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell. It all went horribly wrong.


A courtroom, like a television studio, is fraught with danger. It exposes Royals to a world their cosseted life usually shields them from.


There’s nowhere to hide and clever people – cleverer than Harry, anyway – get to ask awkward questions, which, of course, must be answered truthfully.


And Harry is unlikely to get an easy ride. Lawyers can make their reputations in cases such as this. Oprah Winfrey they’re not.


However sure he is of his grounds for complaint, however safe he feels as a Prince of the Realm, however poised he might appear after an Eton education, it’s a risky strategy.


But his one-Prince war waged obsessively against newspapers drives him on – against all the advice and experience of his family and courtiers.

*****

Browsing The Times yesterday, I had to stop and check the date. No, it wasn’t April 1.


Why, then, did I suspect that so many of the stories were spoofs?


Page 3: The Brecon Beacons National Park is changing its name to get rid of Beacons and make it seem more eco-friendly. Strike a light!


Page 9: A teacher says that she was told to apologise to 11-year-olds at a private girls’ school for saying “Good afternoon, girls,” at the start of a lesson. Pupils told her: “Not everyone here identifies as female.”


Page 11: PG Wodehouse is the latest author to have his work altered after a publishing house edited several Jeeves and Wooster books to remove “unacceptable” prose. Our hallowed proprietor, Lord Drone, must be incandescent. All of him, I mean, not just his nose.

Dateline 17 April 2023

TUO: Missed out Supreme Leader’s  name

My hero writers were masters of their craft but the purity and power of Hemingway’s words led me to become a journalist












The great Daily Express reporter James Cameron perfectly skewered the idiocy of certain newspaper managements even back in the days when they turned a tidy profit.


Cameron was writing about the demise, in October 1960, of the News Chronicle, from which he had recently jumped ship and which was swallowed up by the Daily Mail with the loss of many jobs.


“The basic cause of death,” he wrote in his memoir, Point of Departure, “was a simple thrombosis, defined as when an active circulation is impeded by clots.”


Liberal-minded Cameron held great affection for the “News Chron” – which was still selling more than a million copies when it went under – and withering contempt for those who ran it.


“The last act in Bouverie Street, when the management stealthily sacked a staff that was even then producing the last forlorn edition, set the pattern for the Fleet Street decline. The paper had in fact died long before; what we saw was merely the laying of the pennies on the eyes.”


Afterwards, Cameron wrote, he never again set foot, other than accidentally, in Fleet Street.


But his shadow loomed large. As a young reporter, I was in awe of his writing, his reporting and, well, just his way of life.


He wasn’t a foreign correspondent in the sense that he lived abroad and reported on events in his adoptive homeland. He was more what we used to call a fireman, dispatched to trouble spots at short notice by the Foreign Desk of whichever newspaper he was working on to make sense of the latest war, pogrom or uprising.


Thus, he reported on the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll; the escape of the Dalai Lama as the Chinese Communists encroached on Tibet; and appalling atrocities in the Korean War. He even finagled his way into North Vietnam to obtain interviews with Ho Chi Minh.


But much as I admired him, it was not Cameron who drew me to journalism. It was the sublime novels of Ernest Hemingway.


I was living abroad, in a rural community with few books, while I figured out what to do with my life. It was my great good fortune to come across a set of Hemingway’s works at the back of a wardrobe. I read them voraciously once – and then again, and again.


The purity and power of his spare prose was eye-opening to the 18-year-old me. Later I read a book of his collected journalism and that was good, too. My mind was made up.


Hemingway might have been my literary hero – The Old Man and the Sea is still my favourite book – but he wasn’t the ideal role model, either as a human being or as a journalist. In real life, he was a philandering drunk with a large but fragile ego.


As a journalist for the American magazine Collier’s, he landed with US troops in Normandy and attached himself to the 4th Infantry Division. According to his biographer Anthony Burgess – not a bad scribbler himself – he sent the paper dispatches that were “wildly inaccurate but full of life”.


Burgess also reports that “Papa” Hemingway, as he was known, “defied the Geneva Convention by tossing three grenades into a cellar where SS men were said to be in hiding.” Even the most rabid News Editor would probably not have demanded that of his reporter.


Hemingway boasted that he liberated Paris, as though single-handedly. It’s true that he drove into the City of Lights with the first American troops, every inch the macho, bearded war correspondent. But most agree that the only thing he liberated was the wine cellar at the Ritz.


“He took a room at the Ritz,” writes Burgess, “and, in a near-permanent haze of champagne and cognac, was ready to receive adoring visitors.”


One of these was Mary Welsh, an American journalist he had met in London while she was working for the Daily Express. She became the fourth Mrs Hemingway, supplanting Martha Gellhorn, whose own work as a war correspondent eclipsed that of Hemingway.


There were others who influenced me: John Pilger, whose anger at the Establishment, perceived injustice and even his own masters in the western Press embittered every paragraph. But his sheer passion made them worth reading anyway.


And Alistair Cooke, who wrote for the Guardian and presented, in an urbane mid-Atlantic accent, the peerless Letter from America on BBC radio for 58 years – a record for a speech radio programme.


I remember a lecture at Harlow from the Night Editor of the Guardian, in which he despaired of the lateness of Cooke’s copy. “Just as I’m thinking, ‘That’s it, we’ll have to go without him,’ the copy drops on my desk. And it’s so damned good, you can’t complain.”


But if I ever needed a reminder of how much fun journalism can be – believe me, I seldom did – I could always turn to the work of Patrick Campbell, 3rd Baron Glenavy. He was surely one of the funniest men ever to set pen to paper.


I remember laughing so hard at one of his pieces on a beach in south-west France that my wife picked up her towel and put some distance between us. It might have been the piece where a mischievous News Editor on the Irish Times sent him to interview a librarian who knew the details of an archaeological find near Waterford.


“You two ought to get on like a house on fire,” said the News Editor. “Or an ammunition dump exploding.”


Campbell was famous for a stammer, though it never impeded – in fact, it enhanced – his appearances on the TV show Call My Bluff. The librarian, whose name was Riordan, was similarly afflicted, it turned out.


Arriving at the library, Campbell inquired: “Are you Mr M’Reer – M’Reer – M’Reer…” The man he was addressing nodded at a colleague, who said: “I’m A’Rah – A’Rah – A’Rah…”


And so battle was joined. “My intrusive ‘m’ against his intrusive ‘a’,” wrote Campbell. “I’d tried the intrusive ‘a’ myself, and knew that in careless hands it could bring on strangulation.”


It was a linguistic duel, each man probing for weaknesses in the other’s speech, and it remains one of the funniest things I have ever read. You can find it, in all its glory, in his book The P-P-Penguin Patrick Campbell.


It seems as though every prominent journalist of that era worked at some time for the Daily Express. Campbell was no exception. He harboured a dream of working for – perhaps even, one day, taking over – the William Hickey column, which was then written by Tom Driberg.


Campbell’s father wrote to Lord Beaverbrook and in due course a letter arrived from one of his secretaries informing Campbell that he was hired at seven guineas a week and telling him to report to Beaverbrook’s London home, Stornoway House, the following morning “so that we might discuss how best I could serve the cause of Express Newspapers.”


This called for a drink, since the salary was almost twice what he was presently earning. He started in the Gloucester Arms, then, when that closed, he and a friend did a tour of Soho’s afternoon clubs. He lost his friend but met up with two others from Dublin. They had dinner and spent the rest of the night in a club in Gerard Street called Smokey Joe’s.


When he got home at 8am the phone was ringing. Campbell picked it up.  A voice said: “This is Lord Beaverbrook. Where are you?”


Campbell made writing look easy and perhaps it was, for him. In another book of his collected columns, Patrick Campbell: 35 Years on the Job, he recalls how he once asked the Editor of the Sunday Dispatch if he could have a holiday.


“A holiday,” said the Editor, “from what?”

__________

SUBLIME: Ernest Hemingway

TAKING THE MIC: Expressman Mike Graham

Speech radio is swiftly taking over from newspapers — and the gentlemen and ladies of the Press are leading the way













The airwaves are the new Fleet Street. Twiddle the radio dial any which way and you’ll soon come across heated argument, raw passions, controversy, campaigns and bite-sized news.


It’s as if the pages of the Mirror and the Sun (c. 1980) have come to life.


I wondered last week who would be left to inform, titillate, enrage and speak truth to power when the tabloids, now in their death throes, are gone.


And the answer is talk radio.


According to Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) – which is the radio equivalent of the newspaper industry’s ABC figures and measures UK radio audiences – almost 50 million people, or 89 per cent of the population, turn on the radio every week and listen for an average 20 hours.


Competition for listeners is ferocious, just as it was among the tabloids for readers in their glory days.


So it is no wonder that some of the best tabloid journalists have reinvented their careers by going into radio.


I enjoyed the bitchy exchange, reported in the Daily Drone, between those two old Expressmen, Mike Graham, of TalkRadio and James O’Brien, of LBC.


Handbags at dawn, our esteemed Editor called it, and it’s true. But it also perfectly illustrates the needle that exists between stations and presenters.


Graham, a former Foreign Editor and Night Editor of the Express, called O’Brien, who wrote for the Sunday Express in my time there, a moron and a plank (two of his favourite words).


O’Brien responded by threatening Graham with the attentions of Sue, Grabbit and Runne over “a vile and obvious libel”. He ended his tweet with: “Thank you all for your expressions of concern.” Aw, diddums.


All highly entertaining, which is just as it should be because they’re in showbiz now.


O’Brien (Ampleforth and LSE) likes to demonstrate his street cred with a London drawl and can be a condescending bully towards those who disagree with his Left-wing views.


When Amber Rudd, then Home Secretary, proposed a list of foreign workers in the UK, O’Brien read out what he said was an extract from her speech… then revealed it was a passage from Hitler’s Mein Kampf.


O’Brien’s morning show takes over from the No. 1 breakfast show in London, hosted by Nick Ferrari, a Sunday Express columnist and former editor of the Sun’s Bizarre column recruited by Kelvin MacKenzie. He has also worked for TalkRadio, which seems much more his natural home than LBC.


Mike Graham is a newsman of huge experience. Aside from his time on the Express, he was a freelancer for papers in New York and has worked as a broadcaster in Scotland and London.


He is a controversialist whose show, The Independent Republic of Mike Graham, feeds listeners a classic tabloid diet of outrage, whimsy and, as he sees it, “common sense”.


His style is The Bloke in the Pub, the argumentative one with the Sid James laugh who mocks and rails against the idiocies of modern life, from Covid lockdown to Ultra Low Emission Zones and snowflakes who glue themselves to the M25.


The TalkRadio breakfast show is presided over by Julia Hartley-Brewer, an old friend from the Sunday Express, where she was Political Editor and a columnist.


Julia’s clever, and woe betide the guest or the listener calling in who hasn’t got their arguments in order. When her mouth struggles to keep up with her mind and she leans forward combatively and her spectacles slip down her nose, watch out.


Among those with shows in the evening is Piers Morgan, another one recruited by MacKenzie as the Bizarre columnist on the Sun and later to become Editor of both the News of the World and the Daily Mirror.


Though Morgan was fired from the Mirror after a story about British soldiers mistreating prisoners in Iraq was exposed as a fake, he is nevertheless a brilliant and outspoken journalist with a terrific talent for securing exclusive interviews. Just this week he interviewed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the turmoil in Israel.


Also on late is Tom Newton Dunn, former Political Editor of the Sun and one of the most astute political interviewers around.


And let’s not forget who is the boss of bosses at TalkRadio... Rupert Murdoch, who knows a thing or two about tabloid journalism and also owns Times Radio as well as TalkSport.


TalkRadio has a slightly schizophrenic feel these days. It was reinvented by Australian Scott Taunton, the Chief Executive of owners Wireless Group, as TalkTV almost a year ago but at the same time remained a radio station. The result on TV is static talking heads, many of which were designed for Radio.


For years the BBC had a virtual monopoly on radio but commercial stations – some devoted to music, some to chat – are gradually prising its grip loose. They now have a combined 38 million listeners, compared with the BBC’s 33 million.


But Auntie still holds four slots in the top ten radio shows with LBC in at No. 5. According to the latest figures I can find, LBC now has 2.6 million listeners and TalkRadio about 542,000.


All listening to the dulcet tones of Fleet Street.


Makes a change from: “If that’s a splash, my…”


If you were there, you can fill in the blanks yourself.

Who will speak truth to power in this dangerous world? Not the tabloids


Do you get the feeling that it’s all about to go horribly wrong? The banks look dodgy again. We’re just out of one plague but can the next be far behind? Will somebody please find out what’s going on?


Good journalism has never been more important than it is now.


Donald Trump spent his entire time in office batting away criticism with the jibe: “Fake news!”


At first, I saw that as disingenuous, if not outright comical. But on reflection, I thought he had a point.


He was a populist President (and could be again, God help us) taking aim at some sacred cows of the liberal Establishment. They hated him for it.


So the self-righteous scribblers of The Washington Post and the New York Times – one part journalist to three parts activist – saw it as their mission to bring him down, regardless of the election result.


It always put me in mind of that wisecrack attributed to an American political consultant, Dick Tuck, when the vote went against him: “The people have spoken – the bastards.”


In this country, though, you could always rely on the tabloids for tightly-written, straight-talking, hard news and trenchant opinion, right? Well, that’s the way it used to be.


In my lifetime, the world has never been a more dangerous place than it is now. Russia has invaded Ukraine, though it is paying a terrible price for its hubris. China is sabre-rattling over Taiwan and seems to have designs on great swathes of the Pacific.


This is why Britain allied itself with Australia and the United States in the AUKUS pact, under which Britain and the US will help Australia to acquire nuclear submarines to counter the Chinese threat.


Meanwhile, Israel is tearing itself apart over a move by the Netanyahu government to rein in the supreme court. In a country with no senate or upper chamber, the court is seen as the only institution to check the power of the Prime Minister, and the reforms as an existential threat to Israel’s democracy.


In dirt-poor North Korea, where the despot Kim Jong Un enjoys executing dissidents personally with an anti-aircraft gun, they recently blew up to $75 million in a single day testing ballistic missiles, some of which could reach the United States.


And Iran, where the mad mullahs sanction beatings for women who refuse to wear the headscarf, has enriched uranium to 84 per cent purity (it needs 90 per cent purity to create a bomb).


With all this going on, we need some sound reporting. Journalism that will seek out the truth and skewer the lies and propaganda put out by the tyrants and strongmen.


So where do we find it?


Well, not in the tabloids. Not any longer.


On Sunday, the Daily Drone featured, as usual, all the nationals’ front pages. The Express and the Mail ran with Suella Braverman’s pledge to fly small boat migrants to Rwanda “by the summer”. The Mirror was on praise for Lineker and the People lamented that our jails were full.


The Star had its own exclusive. Ex-footballer Neil “Razor” Ruddock has lost seven stone in weight –   and as a result “his todger has tripled in size”.


There are slow news days … and then, there’s that.


The Express is a basket case, bled dry by its last owner Richard Desmond, then offloaded to a Mirror group so desperate for readers it was prepared to buy them and hope to offset the bill with some economies of scale.


The Mirror was, back in the late Seventies under Editor Mike Molloy, the finest newspaper I have ever seen. It had (with apologies to the Express’s brilliant Garth Pearce) the best showbiz writer of them all in Donald Zec.


It had a dogged investigative reporter, John Pilger, a Left-wing Aussie firebrand who kept the paper true to its working class roots.


(It also had, reputedly, the best poker school in Fleet Street, located in the Editor’s office. I regret that I was never invited to the table.)


But the Mirror’s move into the middle market allowed Larry Lamb’s Sun to slip into the downmarket space it vacated and overtake its circulation.


The Mirror fought back, of course, and regained its place as the premier tabloid. Rupert Murdoch acted fast. Lamb was fired, Kelvin MacKenzie was made Editor, the cover price was cut and bingo was introduced. It boosted the Sun’s circulation by 600,000 in six months.


In his memoir, The Happy Hack, Molloy recalls one of the barbed comments MacKenzie had to endure from his proprietor: "How do you feel about that, Kelvin? Six hundred thousand on the circulation and it had fuck all to do with you."


Nowadays, the Daily Mirror sells fewer than 286,000 and the Sun, which once sold four million, is rumoured have dropped below 500,000, though it no longer reveals its circulation figure except to the advertising industry.


According to former Editor MacKenzie, management have calculated that could doom it to close in six years.


When the tabloids are gone who will be left to inform, titillate, enrage and speak truth to power?

Lineker’s glint of righteous malice said ‘they’ve fallen into my trap’

I found myself staring at the Page One picture in the Sunday Times this week. It was Gary Lineker, of course, but something about it bothered me.


I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It reminded me of something, or someone.


It wasn’t the sparse, irritating goatee, or the trademark thin-lipped smirk. What was it lurking at the edge of my consciousness (or what’s left of it)?


Then it came to me. That glint of righteous malice in the eyes spoke of victory. It said, “They’ve fallen into my trap.”


And that recalled pictures of Patsy Stevenson, the feminist activist arrested on Clapham Common at a vigil for Sarah Everard, 33, who was raped and murdered by serving police officer Wayne Couzens.


The same light of victory shone in Ms Stevenson’s eyes as the naïve bunglers of the Met forcibly removed the redhead from the Common’s bandstand, put her in handcuffs and arrested her for attending the vigil.


Police had banned it on the ground that Covid restrictions made all gatherings illegal. But the High Court later ruled that the ban itself was illegal because it was trumped by the rights of freedom of expression and assembly.


Lineker, 62, who has 8.6 million followers on Twitter, is also insisting on his right to freedom of expression. And I back him all the way.


But if he insists on involving himself in political campaigning, then he has to leave the BBC. Under the Corporation’s rules, everyone working at the BBC must follow strict guidance on social media activity to ensure it complies with the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines as if it were BBC output.


I don’t care what Lineker’s views are. As it happens, I profoundly disagree with many of them. But he has every right to express them. Just not while working for the BBC.


But how much longer will he be there? Yesterday a truce was called in his battle with the Beeb. Lineker will return from his suspension The Corporation’s Director-General Tim Davie has announced an independent review into its guidelines on the use of social media, particularly for freelancers.


So that’s that sorted, right? Well, no. At least, I doubt it.


The BBC has its own way of dealing with these things. Like the Chinese, they take the long view.


I recall the scandal when Jonathan Ross and his mate Russell Brand broadcast vile messages they left on actor Andrew Sachs’s voicemail concerning his granddaughter, Georgina Baillie.


The BBC was fined £150,000 for the “prank” on Brand’s Radio 2 show, which attracted 42,000 complaints. Brand had to resign and Ross apologised but was suspended.


After three months, during which he lost £1.4 million in pay, he returned to continue presenting his show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. He seemed to have escaped unscathed.


I wrote at the time that he should delay breaking out the bubbly, however, as he could yet be a dead presenter walking. And so it proved. When the contract for his chat show came up for renewal, he was axed.


Smug Lineker should beware the same fate.

*****

Sad to read of the death of Bill Tidy, a brilliant cartoonist for Punch and Private Eye among many others, and a TV personality in his own right. Who among us, especially if they had lived in the North, could fail to laugh at The Cloggies, a satirical celebration of male culture in Lancashire.


I never met Tidy, who was raised in Liverpool, but every time I saw him on shows such as Countdown or heard him on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, I felt as though I knew him. That’s because if you have ever lived in the North-West of England you are familiar with his wit and humour.


I remember once drinking with the late Dave Hudson, then like me a Daily Express sub, at a pub beside the Manchester Ship Canal (we knew how to live). We were hungry and, as I had seen some sandwiches on the bar, I volunteered to buy a couple with the next round.


“Aye, all right,” said Hudson, one of the pub’s regulars. “But some of them will be old. Make sure you ask him for today’s.”


I did, and the landlord gave me a funny look.


“Oh, it’s today’s butties you want, is it?” he said. “Lad, you can have next week’s if you like.”


I laughed at a quote in Bill Tidy’s obituary in The Times. When Punch folded, he said: Nearly every publication in which I appeared shivered and rolled over – the Daily Sketch, Sunday Dispatch, Reveille, Weekend, Sunday Chronicle… I was going through Fleet Street like Typhoid Mary.”


I know plenty of journalists who can identify with that.

__________

It was the quiet ones who were the worst Fleet Street drunks

Over lunch the other day, a group of us were gossiping affectionately about a mutual friend and former colleague.


“How old is he now?” someone asked.


“Oh, about 78.”


“Seventy-eight? I never thought he’d see his fifties.”


He was a rakish character, our old friend, fond of a drink, or something more exotic, and with a distinctly Leslie Phillips approach to attractive women.


He was the kind of charismatic personality you met everywhere in Fleet Street in the halcyon days when most national newspapers were produced there. A man with a rumbustious appetite for life and vodka.


But it wasn’t generally the characters carousing in the pub you had to worry about. They’d sleep it off, shuffle in the next day full of shame and contrition (or not) and put in a decent shift.


No, it was the quiet ones, always the quiet ones.


They were introverts, frequently depressives and with a guilty secret they were desperate to keep hidden: they were helpless, hopeless, functioning alcoholics.


And they often functioned extremely well. I worked for three Editors who were certainly alcoholics and knew two others who were recovering.


At least six other journalists I worked with were desperate drunks, as opposed to those who enjoyed a lively break after the first edition had gone. And I have no idea how many others went undetected.


One chap, a freelance reporter who looked after the news desk of a Sunday newspaper when everyone else had gone home to their beds, was enjoying a bibulous Saturday lunchtime in the Poppinjay when he was called back to work.


The landlady discreetly approached one of his companions and told him that the reporter had left without paying his bar bill.


“Really?” he said. “How much does he owe you? I’ll take care of it.”


Incredibly, the reporter had drunk 12 large gins and was on his way back to deal with a breaking story.


It was, I think, Kelvin MacKenzie, late of The Sun and the Daily Express, who said that Fleet Street papers came out “on a river of alcohol.”


But there was a fatherly tolerance of drunks. I know one sub-editor who was called in by the Editor for a ritual monstering over a story he had dealt with.


At the end of the boss’s rant he offered his excuse.


“Sorry, I was pissed.”


“Oh,” said the Editor, “well, why didn’t you say so? Now fuck off and don’t do it again.”


A Backbench executive I knew would tell colleagues he was going to get a tea round and ask what they wanted. He would note meticulously everyone’s order and then disappear for at least half an hour, slamming a few down in the pub before visiting the canteen and returning with the teas.


It was a charade and all his colleagues – me included – were entirely complicit.


I visited him in the old Mayday Hospital in Croydon – now Croydon University Hospital – where he was taken one night in agony with pancreatitis. We strolled the corridors, he pushing a drip stand that was feeding him medication intravenously. We never spoke about the cause of his illness.


Another friend, then on the Daily Telegraph, slipped away from the stone one night to the King and Keys and ran into the Editor, Bill Deedes, at the bar. Deedes was perfectly charming and they chatted for 20 minutes before my friend excused himself. “I must get back,” he said.


“Yes,” said Deedes gently, “and if I catch you in here again when you should be working, I’ll fire you.”


It was rare for him to get caught. He was a will o’ the wisp, a spectre and the bane of every chief sub he worked for. You would look up, see him reading a book and, knowing he was free, write the subbing instructions on the story you were about to give him.


But when you looked up again, he was gone. His jacket was still over the back of his chair and a cigarette was burning in the ashtray. But he was gone.


Like many loners with pent-up demons, he met a sad and tragic end. He shot himself in a New York hotel room. Unrequited love, I think, and a little boy he yearned to see.


Another close friend was a veteran of The Priory clinic in South-West London. His paper sent him there twice to dry out. Later, when he was paid off, he spent his own money to attend a place in Cape Town that had a formidable reputation for helping alcoholics.


When he got back I invited him to lunch at my home. He turned up at four o’clock, drunk as a skunk. We went for a walk by the Thames and he told me: “The doctor says if I have another drink I’ll die. What am I going to do? I love pubs. I’ve been going to them all my life. I don’t think I can keep away from them.”


He went to live in a village in Kent. I asked him what it was like.


“Lovely,” he said. “I’m next door to a pub.”


He died from a fall in his bathroom.


I sometimes wonder whether the job attracted people who were predisposed towards addiction and self-destruction; or if it just turned ordinary men into suicidal drunks.

__________

Tragic case that shows what a muddle our society is in

 When I was a kid – a long time ago, it’s true – riding your bicycle on the pavement could earn you a clip round the ear if a policeman caught you.


It wasn’t allowed, you see, and we all knew the rules. Cyclists used the roads and pedestrians had the pavement to themselves. Simple.


Now the rules are blurred, sometimes confusing and often ignored.


On Thursday, a woman called Auriol Grey, 49, who suffers from cerebral palsy and told police officers she was partially-sighted, was jailed for three years for manslaughter after she swore at a cyclist, causing her to fall into the road, where she was killed by a car.


It’s a terrible case, utterly tragic for both women. But it perfectly illustrates the awful muddle our society has got itself into.


Passing sentence on Grey, the judge at Peterborough Crown Court, Judge Sean Enright, said he acknowledged her disabilities but ‘it does not reduce your understanding of right or wrong’.


What right? What wrong?


Grey said she saw Celia Ward, 77, coming towards her “fast” in the middle of a narrow pavement.


She waved her arm and told Mrs Ward to ‘get off the fucking pavement.’ She told the court that she ‘was anxious that I was going to get hit by it (the bike).’ She added that she ‘may have unintentionally put’ her hand out to protect herself.


CCTV footage of the incident can be viewed online. It is inconclusive whether Grey accidentally pushed Mrs Ward but she can be seen losing her balance and falling into the road.


The court heard police were unable to ‘categorically’ confirm whether the pavement was a shared cycleway.


And yet Grey is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. She is appealing.


Detective Sergeant Mark Dollard said after the case: ‘I am pleased with the verdict and hope it is a stark reminder to all road users to take care and be considerate to each other.’


Well done, DS Dullard, a fine collar … a 49-year-old handicapped woman.


But maybe you could shed some light on whether Mrs Ward was breaking the law by riding on the pavement. No? Oh, well, we’ll have to settle for the sermon, then.


It’s true that road users ought to take care and be considerate. But was the cyclist taking care? Not if she was riding on the pavement illegally. And even if she was allowed to share the pavement, was she showing consideration by riding ‘fast’ in that narrow space?


So, refused bail, Auriol Grey, described as childlike and vulnerable, is banged up in a cell.


It’s a wonder I’m not doing porridge myself.


The Government gave Sadiq Khan bundles of cash to be spent on ruining London’s traffic network. He has followed the brief perfectly.


At the end of my road is our once-lovely high street, now scarred by a hugely expensive cycle lane. It makes crossing the road, even on a zebra crossing, a game of Russian roulette.


If you make it across the bike lane, dodging the cyclists, electric scooters, skateboards, Ocado Zoom contraptions and Jeremy bloody Vine on his ridiculous penny-farthing, you then have to contend with two lines of angry traffic, stationary buses belching fumes and ambulances that can’t get to the sick, the injured and the dying.


It defies logic and common sense and is incredibly dangerous. And it does nothing for the cleanliness of the air around us.


Cyclists blithely assume this is their space, forbidden to everyone else, and they act accordingly, ignoring traffic lights, listening to music or chatting to their children in flimsy wooden hutches at the front.


Already one cyclist crossing a busy junction when the lights were against her has gone under a pantechnicon. I am told she is a GP.


And yet, some still cycle on the pavement, just feet from the designated cycle lane.


There is no clarity, just as there was no clarity in the case of Auriol Grey.


The dead woman’s family accused her of a lack of remorse. I wonder if, in these strange times, that was her real crime.


But three years’ jail? Really?

__________

I’m spitting mad over 11bn bonus for gas boss Looney

SOMETIMES, all it takes is a single headline. To get you spitting with fury, I mean. One minute you’re serenely browsing the Sunday papers, the next you’re leaning from an upstairs window, yelling, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.”


It was in the Sunday Times Business section: “BP set for clash over mega bonus”.


Accurate, but rather understated, I’d say. It turns out BP is proposing to pay its chief executive £11.4 million on top of his £4 million salary. His name – honestly, not even expenses king Norman Luck could make this up – is Bernard Looney.


Looney Tunes stands to make this whopping windfall under a three-year share award plan dating from 2020, when Covid had dented energy demand and hammered BP’s share price.


The company, rightly concerned about blowback, has been consulting shareholders on the planned bonus. One told the Sunday Times that if Looney got the full whack it would be “quite a blatant grab.”


I’ll say. Before reading the ST I checked Saturday night’s Lotto result. Naturally, I hadn’t won. But somebody had – and the poor chump only got £3.8 million. Get yourself a job with BP, old son, it’s just the ticket.


Meanwhile, the rest of us are facing another rise of £500 a year on our energy bills, despite regulator OfGem cutting the amount suppliers can charge. Trouble is, at the same time, the Government is cutting the help it gives to families, meaning a typical household bill will rise from £2,500 to £3,000 a year.


Centrica, owner of British Gas, is profiteering, too. It raked in £3.3 billion in 2022, tripling its earnings. This, of course, is the firm that forcibly installed pre-payment meters into the homes of people who couldn’t pay their bills.


The Sunday Times story provoked no great outrage. No columnist took up the cudgels, the leader writer concentrated on Ukraine.


But it’s a big issue. This is not pure capitalism, it’s rampant greed. I know the arguments about Government interference putting off investors or driving companies out of Britain — and I don’t buy them.

In simpler times Fleet Street would have got angry, would have stood up for its readers. The Mirror would have launched a campaign that would run and run.


Think back to 1973 and the last time we faced an oil crisis and rampant inflation. The papers wrote of little else (and mostly by candlelight).

Now journalists shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s Putin, what can you do?”


I’ve always put my trust in free markets. Swings and roundabouts, I reasoned. Risk and reward. But there are no free markets any more. Risks are small, rewards ever greater.


More and more now, I find myself allied to people whose views I once found dogmatic and sometimes even repugnant.


TUC general secretary Paul Nowak, for one. “Energy bills are out of control,” he said. “The Government must cancel April’s hike. With the cost of wholesale gas plummeting ministers have no excuse for not stepping in.”


But will they? Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has told the BBC he did not think the Government had the “headroom to make a major new initiative to help people.”


Nowak is right. It’s time for Ministers to channel their inner Peter Finch and shout down the phone line at Looney Tunes and his corporate cronies: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.”


That line, by the way, comes from the wild-eyed, messianic speech that Finch gave in the classic 1976 Sidney Lumet movie, Network.


Finch’s character is going mad and has a meltdown on live television, railing against inflation, oil prices, crime and Joe Public’s helplessness in face of it all (ring any bells?).


Time and again he urges his viewers to stick their heads out of the window and shout, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.”


His network boss, Faye Dunaway, watches with dawning realisation – a brilliant piece of acting – that this is ratings gold.


She asks an aide, “How many stations does this go out on?”


“Sixty-seven.”


“Are they yelling in Atlanta?” They are.


Another flunkey hands her a phone. “They’re yelling in Baton Rouge.”


Dunaway raises her arms to the heavens.


“Son of a bitch,” she says. “We struck the motherlode.”


Well, so did Looney Tunes.


Do something about it, Hunt, you ineffectual blob.

A grumpy curmudgeon and a Hollywood harlot fight to ruin Daily Mail

Actor Hugh Grant is a throwback to Hollywood’s golden era.


With those chiselled good looks he’s in the mould of Cary Grant, Gary Cooper or William Holden.


For years Hugh Grant was the go-to man for rom-coms. Screenwriter Richard Curtis probably had him on speed dial.


As a young man, floppy-haired, with the diffident, slightly bewildered air he could conjure on screen in films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Grant was straight out of Central Casting.


Now, though, at 62, he is a bit long in the tooth for such roles. He is also letting the mask slip and revealing how much the real Hugh Grant hates the Press and journalists generally.


Chris Pine, his co-star in their latest film, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, says: “What I love about him is that for all his charm he’s just this wonderfully grumpy curmudgeon.”


He proved it on the red carpet at this year’s Oscars. Faced with anodyne questions from model and TV presenter Ashley Graham, the star of Love Actually was testy, ungracious and in no mood to cooperate.


Grant has always had a dark side, of course. Back in 1995, soon after his breakthrough performance in Four Weddings, he was caught in flagrante with Divine Brown, a Hollywood hooker, on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, having paid her $60 to perform oral sex on him.


He was fined $1,000 for lewd conduct in a public place and issued an abject apology, saying: “I have hurt people I love and embarrassed people I work for.”


Grant’s girlfriend at the time was Liz Hurley (she of the safety-pin dress). She said that when she heard of Grant’s dalliance with Ms. Brown she felt “like I had been shot”. The relationship did not survive.


Naturally, Ms. Brown became a target for the British tabloids. The News of the World paid her a reported $100,000 for her story.


This was the beginning of Grant’s paranoid loathing of the Press, which surfaced again last week.


A court heard that Grant, a founder of the privacy campaign Hacked Off, was “out to destroy the Daily Mail”. And helping him is convicted phone hacker Graham Johnson.


Johnson, 53, former Investigations Editor of the Sunday Mirror who has also worked for the News of the World, pleaded guilty to phone hacking in 2014. He tried to find out if a soap star was having an affair with a gangster.


After that, the disgrace left him with nowhere to go in Fleet Street, so Johnson the poacher turned gamekeeper. He joined up with Grant and ex-Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, who was bankrolling Hacked Off, to help lawyers trying to prove that celebrity clients were victims of dirty tricks by the tabloids.


He has also worked for the BBC, advising the makers of a documentary called Princes and the Press. Buckingham Palace later attacked the BBC for “overblown and unfounded claims” in the programme.


The court case in London, brought by celebrities including the Duke of Sussex, Grant, Hurley and Elton John, is to decide whether the privacy claim against Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, should go to trial.


Associated Newspapers denies any wrongdoing and has applied for the claims to be dismissed.


The company said: “Mr Johnson was fired by the News of the World for making up stories and was notorious for fabricating news stories while working for the Sunday Mirror.”


Mr Justice Nicklin has reserved his decision.


Grant and Prince Harry share a bitter and vengeful view of the Press. The Duke of Sussex has always blamed the paparazzi, with willing clients in the British tabloids, for the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.


If the claimants are right and they were hacked by private investigators at the instigation of the Mail, then it is hard in all conscience to defend the newspapers.


But it would be a shame if one of the giants of British journalism was brought down by a princeling, a matinee idol and a Hollywood harlot.