Thoughts from ‘an old hack’

In more recent years, I’ve had the persona of a respectable company director (MD of my own communications company, no less). I’ve given media advice to major institutions and key political figures. I served for quarter of a century in the middle ranks of the BBC and throughout my career I have stoutly defended the freedom of the press.

To most of my associates, I’m part of the Establishment.

But in truth, I’m an old hack. Not to be confused as a hacker

The heart that beats inside me is that of the hungry young reporter I once was. Then, newly-released from the compulsory day-release course that qualified me to call myself a journalist, I would write about anything for anybody. Well, anybody who would pay me, that is.

That’s the historical definition of the hack.

I thought the derivation was hackney, as in Victorian taxi, available for hire to all and sundry. However, a more-learned friend corrects me by asserting it goes back to the 18th century and comes from hackney, as in a horse that’s easy to ride and therefore suitable to hire out to the less-expert rider! Either way, one gets the pejorative message.

However, my forbears include Checkov, who had to grub around while waiting for a publisher to discover his genius, and Arthur Koestler, who in barren times wrote about sex for the popular press. That allows me to be an unabashed old hack.

My “fares” included a host of trade papers and magazines, for which I wrote on subjects of which I knew nothing (I once acquired the by-line Kingpin for a weekly article on tenpin bowling).

I worked for most of the nationals, where I was expected to deliver the number of words demanded, regardless of the merit of the story.

Many moons ago, I acted as stringer for the News of the World and was always well-rewarded when the copy matched their expectations. I never unfrocked a wayward vicar nor deprived a scoutmaster of his woggle but I did solicit photographs and intimate information from the families of murder victims. My meter was always running and that allowed me to meet the tightest of deadlines

In sharp-edges mode, I sometimes rang hospitals and allowed unsuspecting nurses to think I was a relative checking on the condition of patients in the news. I sat in on various “secret” political meetings, once pretending to be a member of the National Front. I sunk so low as to once masquerade as an estate agent when investigating a house-letting scam

After those admissions, it’s clear I am not a puritan in the matter of press intrusion. I know all the risks of not holding a firm moral line but I fear there are instances where I think the ends do justify the means.

Maybe at this point, I should reassert that I believe a journalist should be proud to be an outsider. The eternal observer. Watching. Reporting. Not participating. Making wrong-doers nervous, leaving the rich and the famous anxious about rattling skeletons. Never sucking up to the Establishment at any level. Certainly, never being part of the story.

The News International gang ignored the dictum. They allowed their greed for power and influence to overwhelm any sense of professionalism. They lost all sense of judgment. They swapped favours with the Establishment, in a one-sided deal in which they wielded the power of the press like an offensive weapon. They threatened to club to death careers – especially political careers – that didn’t follow the Murdoch path.

They ate coppers for breakfast…and apparently had them to lunch and dinner, too. (The Met commissioner learned the hard way that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, let alone a free visit to a health spa).

The Murdoch mob encouraged key figures to fawn upon them with promises of red-top support when the crunch came at general elections. They shamelessly used their readers as pawns in a game that saw them increase their empire relentlessly. Whatever moral code they lived by, it was clearly not allowed to impinge on profit.

I am not surprised by the tales of multiple phone-hacking (watch this space for further developments) but I am horrified that it was indiscriminate. There are some whom I would regard as fair targets but intruding into the distress of the families of Minnie Dowler, Afghan veterans and perhaps those of the 9/11 victims, puts the perpetrators beyond the journalistic pale.

The we-know-nothing response of Messrs Murdoch and Murdoch, and especially of Mrs Brooks, is mind-numbingly awful. In front of parliamentary scrutineers, they looked stupid, disingenuous and in the end, unbelievable.

Could all three of them have so lost touch with their empire that it had fallen into alien hands? Was it taken over by a species that was fearless of the awesome authority

of proprietor, proprietor’s son and proprietor’s hatchet woman? How did they earn their power if the wool could be pulled over their eyes so easily

Answers in an email, please…to the benighted shareholders in News International.

Jock Gallagher