I’m not starry-eyed about the British newspapers. How could I be when I’ve read them and written for them all my working life? If ever I harboured any illusions, these were quickly dispelled back in the late 1980s when I was lucky enough to land myself a proper job in Fleet Street. Sir David English gave me a freelance contract on the Daily Mail to write op-ed pieces, travel articles and book reviews. And it really was Fleet Street in those days: the Daily Mail building was two minutes’ walk from St Bride’s, the wedding cake church so named after its unusual tower. I had a grand old time. I joined Scribes’ journalists’ drinking club and spent hours in The Cheshire Cheese,once a favourite watering-hole of Dr Johnson, where I talked Old Leeds with Keith Waterhouse and cricket with Ian Wooldridge. I interviewed Daniel Barenboim in Munich and John Arlott in Alderney and I had dinner with Anthony Burgess and his wife in the West End. The first feature I was asked to write was about the Lockerbie disaster.
I learned all – well, at least some – of the tricks of the trade. I saw the glamour and the dark side. There was that scintillated feeling when you got the centre pages spread – though I managed that only once in three years. I saw corners cut and I saw dirty tricks, brilliant inventiveness and quite astonishing stupidity and ignorance. For example, I had to work with a particular editor who was so conscious of her status that, on the occasions she took me out to lunch, she would book a limo to take us a hundred yards round the corner. And here’s what I mean by ignorance. It was my job to suggest topics for stories and one day in 1990, the fiftieth anniversary of Dunkirk, I phoned another editor and said, “I’d like to go to the beaches at Dunkirk and interview British and German veterans of the battle.” The editor replied: “Great idea Pete…” (I hate being called Pete) “…Just refresh my memory – what was Dunkirk?”
Old hacks like me have no illusions when it comes to the world of newspapers. The papers are capable of all manner of skulduggery from phone-tapping to making up stories. But for all its faults – and they are myriad – we need the press. If it hadn’t been for the newspapers’ nagging perseverance, we would have never got the truth about the first Iraq war. And the MPs’ massive expenses fraud would have gone uncovered. And this morning there is news of another initiative that makes me proud to have been involved at close quarters with the national press.
The UK’s two biggest selling newspapers have threatened legal action unless the reasons for the decision to free sex attacker John Worboys are revealed.
The Sun and the Daily Mail have jointly written to the Parole Board and the Justice Secretary to say that unless the reasons behind the decision to recommend the rapist’s release from prison are published within seven days, the papers’ lawyers will apply for a full judicial review to have that decision overturned.
Their letter says the report is a “matter of profound public interest” and keeping it secret is a breach of open justice.
Black cab driver Worboys was jailed indefinitely in 2009 for drugging and sexually assaulting women passengers. Although convicted of “only” nineteen offences relating to twelve victims, he is suspected to have committed more than a hundred sexual assaults. And now a new allegation of historical sexual assault has been made against the 60-year-old Worboys.
The incident, which was reported to the police earlier this month, is reported to have taken place in 1997. The controversial Parole Board decision to approve his release later this month, following his minimum eight-year term, has led to a moral outcry – with lawyers for his victims describing the move as “extremely distressing.”
And distressing it is. Many would say that to release Worboys ever would be a scandalous breach of natural justice. How could the Parole Board come to the decision that a man proven to be guilty of all those violent crimes should be set free, with the possibility of his re-offending?
I’ll tell you why: because the sorts of people who operate the Parole Board – like the sorts of people who get appointed to the Supreme Court or those members of the House of Lords who, only a fortnight ago, voted further to restrict press freedom – are not as other men. They don’t think and act as we think and act. They are a privileged elite and they consider themselves to be in possession of finer moral sentiments than we ordinary mortals.
Shockingly, you and I can do nothing to oblige these tribunes of the people who are really the enemies of the people to come to their senses and change their minds and their policies.
But the newspapers can. And that’s why newspapers – warts and all – should be celebrated. Let’s hear it then for that secular sacrament, the freedom of the press.