This has been a disastrous year for British newspapers. The phone hacking scandal at the News of the World exposed the tabloid sewer – with all its squalor and criminality – to the world. A 168-year-old newspaper sank into the filth and was lost without trace (with millions of readers on board). And public confidence in the press took such a beating that politicians, of all people, may soon have greater control over what newspapers can and cannot publish.
How on earth did we get here? Perhaps David Cameron’s judge-led inquiry into the practices of the press will be able to tell us. But I doubt it. If he was really honest the Prime Minister himself could probably tell us more than the inquiry. To his discredit, he was closely involved with (and friendly towards) many of the villains of the piece.
The truth about the phone hacking scandal, I suspect, will never emerge fully. We may never know which tabloid newspaper editors were complicit in criminal activity; we may never find out which executives encouraged a deeply sinister culture to thrive under their watch.
But there is one great big lesson to be re-learnt from this scandal. It’s that journalism isn’t – of itself – a good thing. There is good journalism and there is bad journalism. And actually, the only thing that can stand between a bad journalist and a newspaper reader is not some government-approved regulator, or a judge, or an MP sitting on a parliamentary committee. It is a good journalist.
Billy Wilder’s gripping 1951 film, Ace in the Hole, illustrates this superbly. It stars Kirk Douglas as a drunk, megalomaniac journalist called Chuck Tatum, who has been fired from no fewer than 11 American newspapers. He tips up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, desperate to find work.
In spite all of Chuck Tatum’s obvious flaws, Mr Boot, the editor of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, decides to offer him employment. It does not end well. When Tatum discovers that a man has been buried alive at a nearby Indian cave-dwelling, he takes control of the story: the police chief, the rescue team, the wife of the buried man – they’re all in cahoots with Tatum to make money, political capital and newspaper headlines from the poor man’s plight. Eventually, he dies of pneumonia after a week trapped in the cave.
This is bad journalism. Tatum tells his young apprentice, Herbie Cook: “I don’t make things happen, all I do is write about them.” But the exact opposite is true. He runs the show and even slows the rescue for dramatic effect. He takes ownership of the story as if he has discovered an oil well. And his readers have absolutely no idea.
The film is instructive for two reasons. First, it shows that without the power vested in them by editors, journalists are completely impotent. Mr Boot seems like a good man and he should be a good journalist, but it was he who hired Chuck Tatum in the first place. His Albuquerque office is adorned with framed pieces of embroidery that spell out: “Tell the truth.” But he gives a job to someone who boasts: “I’m a pretty good liar. Done a lot of lying in my time.”
Second, it shows how easily young hacks can be corrupted. Journalism is a trade, rather than a profession, so every rookie reporter is an apprentice to his seniors. In Ace in the Hole, Herbie, the boy reporter, is led astray by his crooked master. “Sure. Chuck, there isn’t anything you can do wrong, as far as I’m concerned,” he says.
An older journalist, or a better editor, might have raised the alarm.
Will Heaven is assistant comment editor of the Daily Telegraph