Monday 11 July 2011

News of the World

So farewell then News of the Screws...

I am not joining the crocodile chorus and lamenting its passing. Yes it did break some valid stories but for every worthwhile revelation there were a hundred unnecessary, intrusive, prurient pieces of nonsense all washed down with a fairly loathsome slug of cod morality.

The two defining features of this last week's disclosures have been the arrogance of those in control who thought they could break the rules because they were above them and then the slavish fear with which the Murdoch empire is regarded by a range of institutions in our civil society.

I had some dealings with News of the World as a journalist. Back in 1994 I spent some months investigating connections between the paper, the Metropolitan Police and some of its dodgier informants. With colleagues Simon Ford and John Penycate enough evidence was uncovered to make a Panorama programme for BBC1.  

The investigations turned up a basic story that repeated itself. The persuasive informant would pick a gullible victim. Over a period of time the victim would be befriended and then cajoled into entering into a highly unlikely criminal deal -- purchase of Uzi machine pistols was a favourite. As soon as the deal was close to closure out would spring a posse of armed police and a team from News of the World. The victim would then  be convicted of a major crime. As he was led away to a long prison sentence there would be a lurid write up and photos of the arrest in the paper. The line of the story was that the News of the World had "alerted" police to this crime in time for them to pounce before a batch of Uzis or Semtex hit Britain's streets. It would be accompanied by a fulsome quote from the Met thanking the paper for its hard work and public spirit.

It was a great scam. Everyone a winner. The informant got a handsome cash reward. The paper got an "exclusive" and the Police were able to "clear up" a major crime with a decent conviction. Trebles all round. The fact that it was an entirely manufactured crime did not seem to matter. The victims were hardly attractive. They tended to be sad, lonely, petty criminals or losers who valued the attention of the silver tongued agent provocateur and were easily led into his trap.

Before and after the Panorama programme was eventually broadcast our BBC managers were sent  threatening letters from Wapping and called to "high level" meetings at Scotland Yard. The programme itself was cut back and pulled many of its punches. My career at Panorama was over. For reasons  of "career development" I was moved away from the programme.