Sustained Moral Outrage: Comedian, Steve Coogan, confronts the former Deputy Features Editor of the News of the World, Paul McMullan, on the BBC's Newsnight programme: "You're not a journalist! You know you're not!"
YOU HAVE TO WONDER why he did it. The British people were aghast: disgust rising like bile in their throats at the gross moral turpitude of the News of the World. And yet, there he was: Paul McMullan, Deputy Features Editor of the News of the World from 1994-2001, defending the indefensible on Friday’s BBC Newsnight programme.
The casting could hardly have been better, because physically, intellectually and emotionally McMullan was the perfect representative of that doomed newspaper and the morally compromised corporate culture in which it operated.
Slack-limbed, loose-jawed, lank-haired and dead-eyed: speaking in the weak, reedy accents of East London, McMullan’s every self-justifying syllable sounded as if it had been pre-smeared with the mud of the Thames. The man would have done credit to Dickens himself.
Challenged by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis to defend the News of the World’s hacking into the cell-phones of politicians, celebrities, the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and most egregiously, the “In-Box” of murdered teenager, Milly Dowler, McMullan’s response was eerily offhand.
“I’ve always said that I just tried to write articles in a truthful way. And – you know – what better source [for] getting the truth than listening to someone’s messages.”
In those jarring, self-contradictory sentences, McMullan not only lays bare the extraordinary strangeness of the story he tells himself, but the extraordinary lack of moral scruple that has come to characterise the British tabloid press.
In McMullan’s moral universe it is important to write articles in “a truthful way”, but not, apparently, to gather information for those articles in ways that avoid the gross violation of an individual’s right to privacy.
What McMullan simply doesn’t appear to understand is that the casual resort to immoral means inevitably contaminates, and corrupts, even the most noble of ends.
The News of the World’s use of private detectives to dig out the sort of information that would otherwise have remained hidden represented, in essence, a kind of moral and professional short-cut. The newspaper’s editors had obviously decided that the patient, laborious – but ethical – techniques of acquiring information were far too time-consuming. To get the scoop – and thus sell more newspapers than their rivals – they told themselves that their employers’ worthy objectives fully justified pressuring their journalists into adopting unethical (and, ultimately, illegal) methods of news-gathering.
True investigative journalism is not concerned with which celebrity is sleeping with which celebrity’s wife; or snorting cocaine; or watching porn. Nor does it rely on the efforts of “Bennie the Binman” riffling through rock-stars’ and news-readers’ rubbish for titillating tittle-tattle.
True investigative journalism concerns itself with the probity of our political leaders, the efficacy of government policy and the integrity of our institutions. It’s goal is not the revelation of private human frailties, but the righting of wrongs and the exposure of public malfeasance.
And the true investigative journalist gets his story not by trickery, deception or illegality, but by patient inquiry; by laborious (and often dangerous) amassing of evidence, and, most importantly, by persuading those in possession of crucial information to do the right thing, pro bono publico – for the public good.
It is this that makes true investigative journalism a genuinely noble enterprise. Not simply for informing the public about matters of great importance, but for reminding those in possession of crucial information that they have a democratic duty to keep their fellow citizens “in the loop”.
It’s what makes “Bennie the Binman” and all his ilk moneygrubbing sleaze-merchants; and William Mark Felt – No. 2 at the FBI and “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame – a genuine American hero.
For Paul McMullan, however, these ideas might just as well have come from Mars. Although, it’s fair to say that, to the two other guests on Newsnight, the comedian Steve Coogan, and the former Director-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, McMullan himself might just as easily have been a visitor from the red planet.
Regarding him with an expression that blended loathing and contempt in equal measure, Coogan unleashed one of the most splendid examples of sustained moral outrage I have ever heard.
“You come across as a sort of risible individual”, said Coogan, eyes narrowed, nostrils flared, “who is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with the tabloids.”
And when McMullan again tried to justify himself by thrusting forward his journalistic obligations, the grand-fatherly Mr Dyke cut him short:
“Can I just say,” he said, appealing to Maitlis and Coogan, “I’ve spent most of my life being a journalist, and I’m nothing to do with him – and nor are most working journalists.”
“You’re not a journalist!”, seconded Coogan, “You know you’re not!”
And still McMullan failed to grasp how far he was from the light.
“Oh yes I am”, he objected. “I just keep the journal of the day.”
No, Mr McMullan. Your news is from the dark side.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 July 2011.