Friday, 15 July 2011

We didn't think it could be all over - it is now

TOMORROW will be a very strange day. Barring holidays and sickness, it will be the first Saturday for 30 years that I haven’t gone to work.
I have at various times been on the payroll of seven different newspapers. Each time I have left one, it has been my choice, to move on to another. Until this time.
Considering the history of the British press, I may be lucky, but this is the first time a paper has folded under me.
The shock is all the greater because no one – except, perhaps, a handful of News International chiefs – could have seen it coming.
As one colleague, a professional tipster, put it: “If you’d wanted to bet a fortnight ago on which Sunday paper would be the first to close down, you could have got 1,000-1 against the News of the World.”
The biggest-selling English-language paper in the world. A paper with a proud 168-year history behind it. A paper still read, until last Sunday, by almost a quarter of the adults in Britain.
When I joined the News of the World in 1995, its weekly sale was well over four million copies. At the last – except for the surge by final-issue souvenir-hunters – that figure had fallen below 3m. Yet in that time, its share of the Sunday market had steadily risen.
Its sudden closure, even in an era of falling newspaper sales, seemed inconceivable. And then it happened.
I don’t wish to speculate here and now on exactly why it happened.
There are plenty of conspiracy theories about that. Theories alleging a conspiracy by the company owners, the Murdochs; others alleging a conspiracy against them.
There are plenty of people out there – too many of them, I’m afraid, among my friends – eager to celebrate the giant’s fall.
But of this I am sure: It shouldn’t have happened. It needn’t have happened. No one, really, will be better off for it.
Of course, there were times when I groaned inwardly at things the paper published. Times I disagreed with what it said, even what it appeared to stand for.
But that’s part of the point of a free press.
If it only published things I agreed with, it wouldn’t be free.
And, despite popular assumptions about control and influence, there is plenty of evidence that over the years all the Murdoch-owned papers have published much with which Murdoch himself disagreed.
The only diktat applying to all Murdoch titles which I’ve been aware of was one in support of ecological responsibility.
News International was the first – as far as I know, so far the only – major media group to declare itself carbon neutral. Which is surely a good thing.
The News of the World may have become, suddenly, a “toxic title”, but the company is not as toxic – literally – as many of those companies which catastrophically withdrew advertising support.
I might feel compelled to retaliate against that action by boycotting Sainsbury’s and Asda, but I can’t.
That’s because I haven’t set foot in either of those stores for many years. For ethical reasons.
Ethics? A News of the World journalist?
If that’s a contradiction, it’s no greater than the one made by any caring, thoughtful person who chooses to shop, to drive, to take foreign holidays or to use a bank – among other things we all do.
Certain assumptions have always been made about the News of the World. Assumptions based largely on snobbery. Assumptions which, before I went to work there, I largely shared.
When I first presented myself at the Wapping plant, I was at a low point in my life. To be blunt, I needed the money.
I expected the office to be populated by the hard-nosed and vulgar, to be bossed by bullies. I thought I’d be able to put up with it for a few months.
I certainly didn’t expect to walk into a sports department full of people I liked.
Dedicated, professional people whose company I enjoyed and whose opinions I very often shared.
Yet that, with only isolated, unimportant exceptions, is what I found, and what has continued to be the case ever since.
The News of the World’s last sports editor, Paul McCarthy, is one of the finest journalists I’ve had the privilege of working with.
The team of writers he assembled really did include the best in the business.
On the night of the rugby World Cup final in 2007, I had the task of sub-editing the match report sent in from Paris by Andy Dunn, the then new chief sportswriter.
What he submitted, seconds after the game ended, was a well-crafted masterpiece. I had nothing to do but fit it into the space.
I remember it only because it was my first close involvement with his work under pressure. I know now that he’s always that good.
His column-writing too, though I generally write on different subjects, has been an influence on mine.
Those are names you might know. Even if you’ve been a regular News of the World reader for years, you won’t have heard of Nick Jones. But he was just as vital a part of the sports operation, and for a lot longer.
Nick was chief of that unseen, unsung team vital to all newspapers, the sub-editors – the team of which I was a member.
The people who make the words fit the pages and the paper’s style, who check names, facts, spellings and grammar.
The people who – most vitally on the News of the World – write the headlines.
Those are the things I’ve been doing for most of my career. And I’ve never done it for a better, or a nicer, boss than Nick.
There are others on the team I shall miss too.
I looked around the sports room last Saturday night and I saw 50 people who had never hacked anybody’s phone, or asked anyone else to do so. Who had no share in whatever guilt there may have been elsewhere, at an earlier date.
Who were still, right up to the end and despite any bitterness and disbelief, working with care, decency and professionalism.
I have been involved in sports journalism for all but two of the last 33 years. For exactly half that time I have put in at least one weekly shift at the News of the World.
I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve been proud of it.
It will take a while really to believe it’s all over.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Which people is democracy for?

WE live, supposedly, in a democratic country. Which means, in Abraham Lincoln’s great phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Not for the rich. Not for those who happen to have been born wealthy. Not for those who move other people’s money around and end up with a lot of it themselves.
For the people. For you, me and all the folk down your street and mine.
For the people who get old and need pensions.
For the people who are young and need educating.
For the people who get sick and need treatment.
For the people who get unlucky and need welfare.
With this in mind, and with thanks to my friend Alan Baker who dug out the figures – all from reliable public sources – I’d like to share with you a few interesting facts.
• In 2010, state pension payments in the UK added up to £117.2billion. That’s a lot of money. Not so much, though, when you divide it out among more than 10million people.
• The personal wealth of the 1,000 richest people in Britain totals £395bn – of which £124bn is owned by just 20 people.
• In 2008 the UK government spent a total of £581bn on pensions, health, education, defence, welfare and transport. Pretty much everything, in fact, that a government is there to provide.
• That same year it shelled out £850bn on rescuing private sector banks from collapse.
• This year the UK National Debt stands at around 80 per cent of GDP (that’s the total market value of all goods and services produced in the country).
• In 1947 the UK National Debt stood at around 238 per cent of GDP. Yet that was the year the Welfare State was formed. For the people.
Now take another, closer look at those figures and remind me who and what democracy is for?

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Stand by while your pocket is picked?

IT’S not an original comment – it’s been around quite a bit lately on the net – but it’s worth repeating:
“Remember when teachers, nurses, doctors and lollipop ladies crashed the stock market, wiped out banks, took billions in bonuses and paid no tax? No, me neither.”
Of course you can add quite a few other important people to that list too. All of them people whose jobs are about providing necessary services to society, not merely selling stuff that may or may not be needed (and in most cases probably isn’t).
All of whom have been told by the government that they must pay more in to their pension funds, take less out, and wait a few years longer to get it.
It is, of course, impossible to put a general figure on how much is being filched off each person. Cases vary from individual to individual.
But I have seen one calculation that put the figure for one teacher at around £350,000.
Not, of course, that that particular teacher has ever seen, or ever will see, such a sum at one time. Unlike, say, a Premier League footballer, a merchant banker or a member of Her Majesty’s government.
But reckoning total losses over an expected lifetime, that is about the size of the hole which current Tory policies will make in her hard-earned finances.
And you were wondering what yesterday’s strike – and all the coming strikes over what is sure to be a summer (and autumn) of strife – was all about?
Politicians on both sides of the House have been saying (as they always will) that the strikes are wrong.
As if the government itself hadn’t quite deliberately picked the fight in the first place.
And as if anyone should be expected to stand aside politely and without protest while their pockets are picked on such a grand scale.


GREECE is in turmoil, Portugal and Ireland could be next, Spain is said to be teetering. The Euro itself, they say, is in peril.
Over the pond, the world’s largest economy is in crisis, brought to its knees by decades of militaristic mania that began with the insanity known as the Cold War.
We’re all in debt to someone, it seems. But who?
The answer, in big, broad-brush terms, seems to be China.
So maybe the Communists didn’t lose the Cold War after all.
Of course China wisely stayed out. America and the Soviet Union were both big losers in the long run.


WHEN I hear scaremongering talk about the imminent collapse of the international banking system, a bit of me thinks “bring it on”.
If only the process wouldn’t mean so much trouble and pain for so many. Mainly the innocent.
The last time international finance collapsed – I mean really collapsed, not just wobbled a bit – it resulted in world war.
A war which slew many millions, and the aftershocks of which are still being painfully felt in several parts of the world.
In the final analysis, that is the loaded gun which the world’s bankers are holding to all our heads.


IT’S a very long time since I enjoyed Wimbledon as much as I’ve been enjoying this year’s tournament.
Especially in the women’s draw, it’s a long time since there were so many good matches right from the early rounds. Since outcomes were so unpredictable and the quality of entertainment so high.
I have heard moans that the quality of the tennis isn’t that great. But I can’t recall a time when people (mostly men) didn’t say that about women’s tennis.
They moaned when the game was dominated by just one or two players – King, Navratilova, Evert, Graf, the Williams sisters. And now they moan that the world no.1 (the admittedly rather dull Caroline Wozniacki) has no Grand Slam title under her belt.
As if that wasn’t evidence that the era of individual domination is over (for now).
It was suggested by some cynics that the Williamses would stroll in after sitting out most of the year’s other action and claim the top prizes as if by right. Well, that theory - like Wozniacki’s participation – barely lasted into week two.
The hyperactive performance of Marion Bartoli in defeating Serena Williams was thrilling and enthralling. As, until a disappointing semi-final, were the achievements of Bartoli’s conqueror, the unseeded Sabine Lisicki.
Between them, those relatively unsung players have provided some of the best sporting entertainment of the year.


AS a footnote to my two recent columns about domestic violence, I’ve been asked to draw attention to the Men’s Advice Line,
It offers advice and support for men in abusive relationships, both those experiencing violence and abuse from partners, and those concerned about their own violence.
And is, I am told, very good and very useful.