Posts Tagged ‘Russell Harty’

In This Fortnight’s Private Eye: Daily Mail Journalists Lurking Outside Hospital

December 10, 2014

The ‘Street of Shame’ column in this week’s Private Eye for 12th-19th December 2014 reports that staff at St. George’s Hospital, Tooting, discovered a photographer with a long lens camera hiding in the bushes near Accident and Emergency. When he was asked what on Earth he was doing by hospital security, he replied that he was working for the Daily Mail. Janet Tomlinson, the Mail’s associate picture editor, confirmed this, when the hospital contacted her. She explained that the Mail had sent out photographers all over the country to snap ‘party people’. This means drunks about whom the Mail could publish long rant about how they were wasting NHS time and resources. According to the Eye, the hospital was spectacularly unimpressed by this and the Mail’s attitude, and threw the snapper off the premises on the grounds that the hospital was non-public regarding patient confidentiality.

Fleet Street as a very long and dishonourable history of violating the privacy and sanctity of hospitals. Either the Sun or the News of the World, as I recall, sent two of their journalists to burst into the hospital room where Gorden Kaye, the star of the WW II sitcom, ‘Allo, ‘Allo, was recovering following being struck down in the gales of 1989. As ‘Allo, ‘Allo featured the sort of bawdy innuendo common to a lot of the series written by Perry Croft, like Are You Being Served, one of the journos involved thought it would be a jolly lark to wave a cucumber around.

The press also burst into the hospital room of Russell Harty, when the BBC chat show host was dying of an AIDS-related illness. Even after they were thrown out and physically barred from the premises, they still continued to invade the privacy of the dying man by renting a room in the house opposite and snapping him through the window.

Recently I’ve posted a few pieces from Pride’s Purge, in which Tom Pride has described his own harassment by Mail journalists, who have tried to disclose his secret identity and threatened his friends. Just this week the good satirist has posted pieces about his complaint to the Daily Mail about their failure to protect adequately the identity of two children the Mail featured in a story about a family of ‘benefit scroungers’, who nevertheless still managed to spend £1,500 on Christmas. This was, of course, another hate piece on the unemployed and desperate. Given the tenor of the article, it was no surprise to read the remarks of another commenter on Tom Pride’s article that it had originally been written by the Sun, and the interview with the family had been obtained by deception. The family had been persuaded to give the interview, believing it would be a more neutral story about people on benefits and low incomes nevertheless finding ways to celebrate Christmas with style.

Tom Pride’s complaint about the newspaper was in part provoked by the outrageous news that Paul Dacre, the foul-mouthed editor of the Mail, is now chairman of IPSO, the government body regulating press conduct. This reminds me of the joke in the Walter Matthau/ Jack Lemon comedy, The Front Page, about a journalist trying to track down and interview an escaped prisoner in the Chicago in the 1930s. Lemon plays the journalist hero, with Matthau as his sleazy, amoral editor. One of the final jokes in that movie is that Matthau’s character then goes on to become a lecturer in journalistic ethics at Harvard.

We’re in pretty much the same situation here, with Dacre as head of IPSO. Only unlike the great comedies made by the Hollywood duo, that ain’t no laughing matter.

Advertisements

A View into the Phone Hacking Scandal, and the Dark, Ugly Heart of Murdoch Journalism

October 4, 2013

News of the World? Fake Sheiks and Royal Trappings, Peter Burden (London: Eye Books 2008).

Fake Sheikhs

The author is the father of a girl, whose boyfriend genuinely knows Princes Wills and Harry. As such, the girl and lad were – unsuccessfully – targeted by the ‘Fake Sheikh’ Mahmood Mazher. This is Burden’s account not only of the incident, but of the history of the infamous ‘phone hacking scandal’, Murdoch tabloid journalism and the News of the World. He charts the history of such journalism right back as far as the 18th century and the Monitor newspaper. This Georgian rag was a predecessor of the News of the World in that it adopted an attitude of pious distaste, while retailing news of sexual scandal amongst the great and not very good. George Crabbe summed up this early incarnation of tabloid prurience in the poem:

‘Then lo, the sainted Monitor is born,
Whose pious face some scared texts adorn
As artful sinners cloak the secret sin,
To veil with seeming grace the guile within
So moral essays on his front appear
But all is carnal business in the rear.’

Burden goes on to trace the rise of the News of the World itself, and how it kept itself afloat with similar stories of scandal. So firmly was the News of the World associated with this kind of yellow journalism, that it’s nickname in Private Eye was ‘News of the Screws’. In the 1960s, however, sales of the News of the World began to fall and its proprietors considered partnerships with other media moguls. One of these was a young Rupert Murdoch. The News’ owner in this period comes out actually as being rather a naïve, gentlemanly soul, in contrast to the contents of his scandal sheet. He was told repeatedly by his colleagues that if he went into business with Murdoch, the Dirty Digger would stab him in the back and he’d be ousted from his own newspaper. The proprietor refused to listen, went ahead with a deal that signed over part of the newspaper to Murdoch, and within half a year he was out. His wife, however, didn’t like the Digger. When they met over lunch, she found him humourless, amongst other things.

The book has on its frontispiece a quotation from a former news editor on the News of the Screws: ‘… that is what we do – we go out and destroy other people’s lives.’ Burden discusses some of the truly low points in the rags miserable history of the invasion and destruction of people’s lives. One of these was in the 1970s, when one of the journalists covered the activities of a man running a walking society. In fact, he was swinger, who used the society as a cover for his own interest in group sex. When asked why his own wife wasn’t part of the shenanigans, the man said that he’d like her to, but she simply wasn’t interested in it and so he kept his double life secret from her. The Screws went ahead with the story. The man running the ‘walking society’ was so devastated by it that, tragically, he took his own life. This led to a scandal about the way the Screws ran its stories, and reforms were put in place to stop it all occurring in the future. Nevertheless, it shows the immense harm that such stories do to otherwise blameless individuals. Sure, the man in question was an adulterer. The people involved in it were all consenting adults, however, so no harm was done to anyone. In today’s more liberal moral climate, it could be argued very strongly that what they got up to in the privacy of their own homes was no business of anyone else. It certainly doesn’t warrant driving someone, who may otherwise have been a perfectly decent person, to suicide.

Other low points in the News’ race to the journalistic pit include their persecution of Russell Harty. Remember him? Harty was the much-loved, rather camp host of a week day chat show in the 1980s. He is perhaps most famous for being beaten up live on TV by Grace Jones, the singer and female muscle freak. The design of the set met that Harty couldn’t face more than one guest at the same time. After talking to Jones, he turned to talk to his other guest. Jones thought he was ignoring her, and so gave him a clip on the top of the head. It was a bizarre, funny moment, and added yet more evidence to prove that Grace Jones was deeply scary. There was a car advert in which her mechanical head suddenly emerged from the desert. Her mouth opened like a set of mechanical garage doors, and the car shot out. After driving around a bit, it returned back into Jones’ gaping maw. This was the decade when Arnie’s Terminator first appeared, so this may have been Jones’ turn to represent female cyborg muscle.

It was not, however, the fearsome chanteuse that persecuted Harty during his terminal illness. Harty tragically died of AIDS. During his treatment, however, he, his friends and family were repeatedly pestered by the Screws’ journalists covering the story. After breaking into his private room in hospital, the Screws’ then rented a room in the house opposite so they could take long lens shot of the sick broadcaster in his bed. it was another demonstration of how low the Screws and its journalists would go. One of them had such a reputation for indulging in stories of indiscreet sexual shenanigans that he acquired the soubriquet ‘Onan the Barbarian’.

The there’s the ‘Fake Sheikh’ Mahmood Mazher. Mazher’s stock-in-trade is to dress up as an Arab sheikh, and arrange a meeting with various members of the aristocracy or celebrities on the pretext of going into business with them. he then inveigles them into doing or saying something embarrassing or criminal. In the case of the aristocracy, this consists in indiscreet comments about the royal family. With celebrities like the Radio 1 DJ, Johnny Walker, this consists of pestering them to get drugs. When they do, Mazher takes it away for testing, and the Screws runs the story revealing that they are a drug fiend. Mazher has even gone so low as to stitch up members of his own family. His brother, Waseem, was employed in the BBC’s Asian unit at Pebble Mill. Waseem Mazher noticed that, contrary to Beeb regulations, a number of directors and producers at the Mill were using the Beeb’s equipment to edit films they were making for rival companies. At that time both Waseem and Mazher were living at home. Waseem mentioned this over family dinner. Mazher immediately recognised the story and ran it. For breaking the broadcasters’ code of omerta, Waseem was ostracised to the point where he could not work in British broadcasting. He now operates a radio station in Afghanistan. Friends and family clearly mean nothing to this man.

One person, who was not deceived by Mazher was George Galloway. Mazher contacted Galloway for a meeting in his guise as the sheikh. On his way to the meeting, Galloway recognised Mazher’s accomplice and bodyguard, a seven-foot tall man mountain with gold teeth, nicknamed ‘Jaws’ because of his similarity to the Bond villain. This alerted him to what was to come. Now I’m not a fan of Galloway. He has publicly supported some of the nastiest regimes in the Middle East, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the current government in Damascus. Mind you, not that he’s alone in that. As I’ve pointed out, Maggie, Bush and Reagan were selling arms to Saddam’s regime in the 1980s. In the 1950s the CIA was running him as a hitman to whack out members of the Iraqi government after a revolution toppled Britain’s puppet. Arguably, his opinions on the Middle East are no worse than that of the British establishment. He’s just more consistent about them and open. Galloway is a supporter of the Palestinians and against Israel. He states, however, that he is anti-Zionist, but not an anti-Semite. During their conversation, Mazher tried to trap him into saying something vilely anti-Semitic and in favour of the Holocaust. Galloway was not tricked, and refused to take the bait. He replied that the Holocaust was a crime against humanity. Defeated, Mazher withdrew.

When Mazher was pulling these stunts in the 1990s, Private Eye ran a story in their ‘Street of Shame’ column. One of his victims finally caught up with him and asked him, over the phone, why he was involved in such despicable journalism. His reply? ‘But I’ve got a mortgage’. Burden notes that Mazher was originally quite a courageous, genuinely investigative journalist. He was beaten up during an investigation into the availability and use of guns amongst Manchester’s street gangs. Understandably, he gave up this type of journalism, to concentrate on weaker, less violent targets.

As for Burden’s daughter,she and her beau were flown to America by the ‘Fake Sheikh’ pretending to be interested in making a business deal with them. Mazher took them to a nightclub, and then tried to get them to say something unpleasant about the Princes, the Queen Mother and Prince Philip. The lad, who has set up nightclubs with one of the Princes, remained discreet about it all and said he really couldn’t comment, as he genuinely had no opinion. On their return to Britain, the couple slowly realised that they may have been duped and the person they encountered was Mazher in his habitual guise. Burden checked with the Screws, who replied that they had indeed tried to deceive them, and that it had been a complete waste of several thousand pounds.

Most of the book is, of course, about the phone hacking scandal, the journalists, editors and private investigators involved, how they were discovered hacking into the Princes’ private email and mobile phone messages. They were discovered after running as genuine a phone call one of the Prince’s had made to the other pretending to be his girlfriend. Burden goes further, and talks about the Murdoch’s personal management of his empire, his appointment of Rebbekah Brooks as editor of the Screws, and the weird legal economics that informs how Murdoch runs him empire. Murdoch’s chief legal advisor was one Crone. Crone used to guide his master on how much their newspapers would lose in fines and damages if they lost a libel case on a particular story. He used to raise up the fingers on his hands to show how many thousands it would cost them. Murdoch and his editors then did a few brief calculations. If the number of copies sold outweighed the amount they’d have to pay in damages, then they printed the story. Burden also criticises Murdoch and his empire for the way he has generally lowered journalistic standards through his prurient sensationalism.

Burden also considers the debate surrounding what is in the people’s interest, versus what is of interest to the people. This means whether the content of a piece of journalism is worth printing because of its importance to British society and economy. As against whether people want to read it simply out of desire to get some kind of thrill from reading about others’ private lives and peccadilloes. Burden himself seems to favour a law like that of the French legislation guaranteeing the individual’s right to a private life. This effectively puts peering into the private lives of MPs, celebs and others out of bounds. You can see his point, but I don’t think the argument is at all solid, especially after the accusations of rape directed a few years ago against a senior French politician.

This book, however, gives valuable personal and historical insight into the News of the World, and the background to the phone-hacking scandal still enveloping News International. It also shows the moral paucity at the heart of Murdoch’s media empire.

Meanwhile, here’s a clip of the formidable Ms Jones laying into Russell Harty.

It’s on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpWo15Jc2JQ.

And here’s Spitting Image’s take on Murdoch’s true journalistic values:

This is on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVIkmJcodFM.