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.

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