When I was the News of the World‘s political editor, I was on the lookout for stories – and for scandal. That’s what political journalists are paid for. But had I gone to Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson when they were editing and said that I had a story about David Cameron’s honourable member and a pig’s head, their first question would be: ‘where’s the proof?’
If I then told them I had it on good authority from an MP who swears he’s seen a photograph but won’t go on the record, I would have been booted out of the office – only after being given a good kicking. As every political journalist knows there are lies, damn lies – and then the tales that MPs tell about their enemies. Lord Ashcroft’s story about Cameron and the pig would not have passed the basic standards demanded by a tabloid newspaper.
It’s easy to sound hypocritical defending the editorial values of a newspaper closed for phone hacking. But there is an important point to be made here.
There are two ways of publishing a particularly juicy piece of scandal about a politician. The hard way is to find proof, preferably a sworn witness statement backed up by irrefutable photographic evidence. Piers Merchant, for example, was actually filmed having sex with his ‘researcher’ after she agreed to help the Daily Star obtain proof of their affair.
In the days before phone hacking the News of the World spent over a year trying to prove dear-departed Robin Cook was having an affair with his secretary, Gaynor Regan. Yes, there were rumours – but rumours are never enough. A flat was rented opposite Cook’s London flat and a round-the-clock stake out was launched. So secretive were the couple that Gaynor would arrive via a secluded rear entrance and sit in the dark until the Foreign Secretary returned from work. It was only when Robin took out the bins while his secretary watched that the photographers secured the evidence they need.
It was an expensive, long, time-consuming exercise – but it was the only way to do it. A scandal is only a scandal if it’s actually true.
When Labour MP Nigel Griffiths took photos in his office of a woman in stockings and suspenders, the pictures were not enough. Reporters climbed scaffolding to try to corroborate it: to see if the furniture was in the same place as the risqué photos.
But the News of the World is no more, and tabloid budgets have been slashed to such an extent that large-scale investigations on politicians simply aren’t worth the effort.
The easy way for a newspaper to publish a scandal nowadays is simply to serialise a book, preferably one by a ‘name’, and then print whatever they say about someone you know doesn’t have the time or the inclination to sue. The newspaper does not have to spend so much time and money standing up each allegation; a book serialisation means that you’re just publishing what someone else says. The reputation of the author, not the newspaper, is on the line.
The Cameron story appears on the front page of the Daily Mail today because Lord Ashcroft, a man with a grudge and the assumptive arrogance of a peer of the realm, says he has had it on good authority from an MP who told him three times.
MPs and peers are the worst gossips of all. In 15 years in Westminster I would be told increasingly lurid tales about their rivals’ secrets. The MP who was too friendly with her pet pooch? The peer who dressed as a schoolgirl? None of them were provable and none of them were printed. Most were no more than lurid fantasies or downright lies.
Politicians like to attack the press for low standards – and, sometimes, with good reason. But today we see a revolting ‘story’ that is based on nothing more substantive than the ‘word’ of a multi-millionaire and his unnamed source.
It is in the book because Lord Ashcroft has made the (probably correct) assumption that the Prime Minister has more on his plate than to sue him for libel over an unprovable allegation from 30 years ago. But without any corroboration, his story is little better than playground gossip. What all this say about Lord Ashcroft’s own reputation I will leave for others to decide.
Ian Kirby is the former political editor of the News of the World and is now Head of Media at MHP Communications.