Fetch the sick bag, Alice. Mark Thompson wishes to lecture us

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by Kenneth Roy

When the opinionist John Junor was offended by some public utterance – it didn’t take much – he asked Alice, a fictional character in his Sunday Express column, to fetch the sick bag. I thought of Alice twice at the weekend; I longed for her to fetch her sick bag.

Greg Miskiw, aged 61, assistant editor at the News of the Screws under the prime minister’s friend Andy Coulson, has been tracked down in Florida – nice for some – but has vowed to return to Britain to face police questioning and possible serious criminal charges over his alleged role in phone-hacking, a scandal which has given a new meaning to the word hack. Miskiw’s contribution to the national life – his only one – is his saying: ‘This is what we do. We go out and destroy other people’s lives’.

Mark Thompson, 54 next Sunday – I will avoid the hypocrisy of wishing him a happy birthday, otherwise Alice would have to fetch another sick bag – was one of the guests at the end of the world as we know it, the all-night party at the Murdochs on Saturday 2/Sunday 3 July, also attended by those prominent devotees of serious journalism, Robert Peston and Jon pure as the driven Snow.

Twenty-four hours later, it all came out: the interception of poor Milly’s telephone and the deletion of her voice messages. Peston and pure as the driven were among those with the most serious faces as the full extent of the depravity of the Murdoch press was revealed. I kept waiting for the ultimate insider’s account – by either or both – of how it felt when the world ended: what it was like at the party, who they talked to, about what, when they left, that kind of basic stuff. Andrew Marr – Mr Superinjunction himself – could have invited them onto the sofa for a frank debrief and a quick look at the Sunday papers.

But, unless I missed something, I’m still waiting.

Mark Thompson, aged 53, the director-general of the BBC, heaven help us, also managed to omit any mention of the end-of-the world party when he addressed the nation on Saturday morning. Judging by the magisterial tone, it must have been a Mark Thompson doppelganger who accepted the Murdochs’ hospitality that occasion long ago, the weekend of Saturday 2/Sunday 3 July at Burford Priory. Of any possible connection between Thompson and Murdoch parties, I am reminded of J M Barrie, who said it was difficult to believe there was ever a ball at Kirriemuir. Such is the absence of first-hand testimony, it is difficult to believe there was ever a party at Burford Priory.


Here is a person who makes no secret of his desire to destroy other people’s lives. He positively relishes his vocation: why, it is almost New Testamental in its fervour.


Thompson – the alter-ego who wasn’t at the party – said: ‘The phone-hacking scandal has put investigative journalism in the dock…[we need] a complex but necessary debate about where the boundary of acceptable journalistic practice lies and how it should be enforced’.

Was taking the hospitality of the Murdochs acceptable practice for the editor-in-chief of the BBC? It is not so many years ago, after all, since one of the BBC’s presenters, Russell Harty, was set up by a News of the Screws ‘journalist’, since the creeps trained a telescope on the window of his deathbed at St James’s Infirmary in Leeds, since one of the destroyers of people’s lives smuggled himself into the ward disguised as a junior doctor in order to look at his casenotes, and since the same Murdoch functionary who set him up went on television to boast of her achievement. As Alan Bennett said at Harty’s memorial service: ‘One saw at that time in the tireless and unremitting efforts of the team at St James’s the best of which we are capable, and in the equally tireless, though rather better rewarded efforts of the journalists, the worst’.

Which of the weekend’s statements merits one of Alice’s larger sick bags? (They come in various sizes.)

‘This is what we do. We go out and destroy other people’s lives’ (Miskiw)
or
‘The phone-hacking scandal has put investigative journalism in the dock’ (Thompson)

I am in no doubt: it is a small sick bag for Miskiw, an extra-large one for Thompson. With Miskiw we know where we are. Here is a person who makes no secret of his desire to destroy other people’s lives. He positively relishes his vocation: why, it is almost New Testamental in its fervour. And now, by a neat reversal of fate, he is having his own life destroyed. This is called Nemesis. He can look it up in the dictionary. Assuming that people who worked for the News of the World possess one.

With Thompson, however, we don’t know where we are. I refuse to be lectured by this man about investigative journalism or to have my own work put in the dock – its boundaries ‘enforced’ – on the say-so of the Burford Priory set. The only guest there of any possible future utility is one Kirsty Young, who presents a programme called ‘Crimewatch’. If a reconstruction of the event proved necessary – if only to identity the whereabouts of potential suspects on the weekend before the world came to an end – we should have a ‘Crimewatch’ special presented by Kirsty Young. Let’s have one anyway.


For weeks, with the help of the Lib Dem MSP Robert Brown, SR attempted to discover how the BBC had ‘obtained’ these tapes. The mainstream media failed to evince any interest in this little campaign of ours – what’s new?


Late last year we in Scotland had an insight into the investigative journalism for which Mark Thompson is responsible and for which he is paid £800,000 a year. It was an hour-long programme – the BBC1 Scotland schedule was hastily re-arranged to make airtime for it – called ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’. It was the work of an investigations unit at Pacific Quay. Had it explored the larger framework around this case – the curious decision to prosecute, the suggestion that the Murdoch empire influenced that decision, the extent to which the jury was swayed by the prejudicial media coverage of the trial, the dubious character of the media empire hounding the accused, the quality of some of the evidence which is now being re-examined for possible perjury – the programme would have fulfilled a valuable public function.

Within hours of the jury’s verdict, however, it was clear that this was not the BBC’s agenda in broadcasting the programme. I described it at the time as ‘salacious drivel’ and ‘a shabby little episode’. How much shabbier it looks now. The BBC had ‘obtained’, legally or otherwise, tapes of police interviews with Sheridan and his wife and went on to use them in the programme. Its heavy promotional material emphasised quite shamelessly that the programme would provide ‘not only a fascinating insight into how the pair react under intense police questioning, but also reveal fresh allegations about Sheridan’s sex life’.

For weeks, with the help of the Lib Dem MSP Robert Brown, SR attempted to discover how the BBC had ‘obtained’ these tapes. The mainstream media failed to evince any interest in this little campaign of ours – what’s new? – and from all the possible sources there were denials, some more convincing than others; the BBC, ever the arbiter of noble journalistic standards, refused to name its source. We were left where we started – with the suspicion that someone in the police leaked the tapes to our public service broadcaster. Some SR readers objected to this speculation. The police? How dare we! Subsequent events have taken their toll of public confidence. I wonder how strongly the same readers would object now.

If Thompson really wants to have a ‘complex but necessary debate about the boundaries of acceptable journalistic practice’, he could start with ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’ and ask himself why this disgraceful programme was ever allowed on air. Does he not realise that, by churning out tabloid telly, he reduces the BBC to the same low level as Murdoch himself? Or is he too busy moralising about investigative journalism to have noticed?

Fetch the sick bag, Alice. Bring some spares when you’re at it.

 

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.

Image by Bob Smith – http://bobsmithart.com