And the death of the News of The World, for all its remaining faults, is nothing to crow about

Should Cavaliere Murdoch have his papal knighthood rescinded? My feeling is that it wouldn’t do much good: he gave a lot of money (probably at the instance of his then wife, who was a Catholic, and who at the same time was made a papal dame) after he donated $10 million to help build Los Angeles Catholic cathedral. Just cancelling the knighthood simply gives the impression of futile censoriousness. If we made a mistake in giving him a papal knighthood in the first place, it won’t be undone by taking it away now.

It also gives the idea we shouldn’t have anything to do with people who do bad things. Actually it’s just what we’re supposed to do. When I was writing regularly for the Daily Mail, I had an amusing invitation to write a piece for the Sun. Well, it was the way the invitation was put that was amusing: the proposed piece was actually quite serious. “What,” the chap said, “do you think of the way the local council [or somebody of that sort] at Newquay is going around the beaches and distributing condoms to 12-year-old girls? It isn’t right, is it?” “Well, no,” I replied. “It definitely is not right”. “That’s what we thought”, he said. “But why? Would you write a piece explaining why it isn’t right?” “Well, certainly,” I said. It was to be a long piece, a full page: for the Sun, that is of epic proportions. “Could you get it in today?” He said: “Next week, we’re doing a big feature, with the headline ‘Nookie in Newquay’.”

You couldn’t make it up.

Well, I wrote the piece, which went down well, I was told, and a few weeks later, I got another phone call. They were going to run a story about two girls who had gone on holiday on the Costa del Sol and had decided (as a kind of holiday task) to try to clock up, during their seven days, sex with at least 40 different men between them. “It isn’t right,” said the chap, “is it.” No, I said, “it isn’t right.” “But why?” he said; “Why isn’t it right?” Would I write a piece explaining Why it wasn’t right.

That, too, went down well, it seemed; but I was getting a little puzzled. Why, if they were so disapproving of these activities, were they running stories about them in the first place, thus giving such behaviour a kind of popular currency? So I asked them about it. The answer was simple. They worked for the Sun: those were the kind of stories the Sun did. But they also had young families: and that somehow gave them this instinctive feeling that “it wasn’t right”. I wrote another couple of pieces of the same sort for them, one of which appeared when Rupert Murdoch was in this country on one of his flying visits. After that one appeared, I got an awestruck phone call. “You’ll never guess who told us he liked your piece,” he said. “No, who?” “Are you sitting down?” he said “Yes.” “Well. It was [lowered voice] MR MURDOCH. What do you think of that? That’s not bad is it? Well done!” You would have thought that he was telling me I’d been awarded the OM, or was going to be invited on to Desert Island Discs.

The then editor of the Sun was sacked shortly after that, so I got no more of these invitations; but when, shortly thereafter, Rupert Murdoch was given his papal knighthood, I hadn’t quite got the heart to join in the chorus of condemnation from Catholic public opinion. Publicans and sinners, I thought, publicans and sinners; we’re not supposed to hold ourselves aloof. And so I think now. That papal knighthood was never taken as meaning that the Church approved of page three girls or of stories about “Nookie in Newquay”. I don’t know quite what it did mean; maybe it was an encouragement to stick with his Catholic wife; if so, it failed, because he later divorced her and remarried.

But if we’re now to take this papal honour off him because of what some of his journalists have so appallingly done, are we not taking it on ourselves to declare his guilt for something he claims (almost certainly truthfully) not to have known was going on? Similarly with Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade. The editor of a newspaper, said the ghastly (sorry, but I think he is) Ken Livingstone last week, either knows what’s going on in his newsroom, or if he doesn’t, he’s just incompetent. As a former editor of a much smaller newspaper, I can state authoritatively that there was no hacking of telephones at the Catholic Herald in my time. But that’s because my staff was so small I knew my journalists well enough to be certain they wouldn’t do that. On a huge paper the size of the News of the World that just can’t be the case.

So, let’s not be in too much of a hurry to spread the guilt around as widely as possible. That the journalists who carried out these really vile acts, especially the tapping of the phones of the bereaved, have been guilty of something really despicable, is clear enough.

But it is pretty clear, too, that most of the journalists who lost their jobs when the News of the World was closed down this week have paid the price for crimes committed by other people, as a direct result of the deeply unattractive tendency of the British people to whip themselves up overnight into a moralistic frenzy which can only be appeased by such dramatic (and in this case wantonly destructive) gestures. The death of a paper founded over a century and a half ago to cater for an audience which had previously been ignored – that is, the poor – has to be seen, whatever its remaining faults, as a tragic event. As the Times said this week, the News of the World was the first newspaper to appeal to the newly literate working class. It still catered for its working-class audience, an audience addressed by the press of no other European country. Of course some of its content was pretty nasty. But much of it wasn’t (the curate’s egg comes to mind). Personally, I wouldn’t have it in the house. But many others, who rarely read anything else, still did: it was their one tenuous link with regular functioning literacy. Now it has gone. There are quite a lot of people around in all this whose behaviour seems to me dubious to say the least. Those who are now crowing at the disappearance of this historic paper are among them.