Another tumultuous week in the business has seen NORMAN GILLER feel for some of his old friends, and wondering whether the Mail group might be ready for a new Sunday
As Hurricane Hackgate crosses the Atlantic to batter the Murdoch Empire in America, all eyes here in Britain are now turning towards the Mail group, as speculation persists over whether they will jump into Sunday redtop territory surrendered by the closure of the News of the World.
My moles (that is, people who have willingly spoken to me – with not a single hacked voicemail message involved, I can assure you) tell me a team has been working around the clock in a closed room at Derry Street on a dummy based on their enormously popular website (50 million worldwide unique users can’t be wrong…). There were even whispers of a test run for the paper this weekend.
The new paper would be celebrity-led, with sport playing a huge role. The irreverent Kelvin MacKenzie, who recently jumped ships from The Sun to the Daily Mail, is apparently being lined up as a leading voice. The working title is, simply, Sunday. I understand mastheads considered included World On Sunday and Sunday Life.
News International’s plans to launch a Sun On Sunday look to have been shelved on Tuesday when the Murdochs told the Culture, Media and Sport select committee that they had “no immediate” plans to publish. As a big plank of their contrite appearance before the committee was that they were telling nothing but the truth, they can hardly bring out their seven-day Sun this side of Christmas. Or can they?
The “this is not a priority” statement from Rupert Murdoch was politically measured as exactly the sort of thing the committee wanted to hear, but it came as a huge blow to the squad of Wapping journalists who have been burning the midnight oil working on a Sunday version of The Sun. A sports team led by Mike Dunn had been hoping to hit the streets with the new tabloid to coincide with next month’s kick-off of the Premier League.
It is also a set-back for the 200 laid-off News of the World staff, who Rebekah Brooks was just last week promising to try to to place in jobs within the News International group. Following her resignation and subsequent arrest, she is hardly in a position to keep her promise.
Any delay on the Sun On Sunday gives the Mail group time to try to mop up the 2.7 million readers who bought the News of the World each week before it was heartlessly sacrificed.
Off the back of some hefty promotion, other Sunday newspapers have benefited: on July 17, a week after the final edition of the “Screws”, the Sunday Mirror picked up 730,000 sales (to reach 1.9 million sales in total), and the Daily Star Sunday more than doubled its usual circulation to 1 million. But, as I suggested when the NotW‘s closure was announced, the Sunday newspaper market lost more than 700,000 total sales in one week, many of them perhaps lost to newspapers forever. Time will tell how many of the other titles’ new readers will stay with them.
Hurricane Hackgate may have abated, but it is only a temporary lull and I wonder how long it will be before sports journalists are hauled into the mire? Both Andy Coulson and Neil Wallis were sports enthusiasts who saw football as a vital sales driver. They are hardly likely to have chased down their (allegedly) hack-led stories without leaning on their sports staff.
Matt Driscoll, former NotW sports reporter, has not been pulling any punches. Driscoll says it is “inconceivable” that his former editor at the News of the World, Andy Coulson, would have been unaware of phone-hacking practices because “he would be a part of all the big stories that were being made by the paper”.
I last saw Matt at Peter Batt’s funeral in May when he came to pay his respects to one of the giants of Fleet Street sports reporting and his Dad’s old drinking partner (his father, Bob Driscoll, was a respected football writer with The Sun before becoming a sports desk executive at the Mail).
Matt was looking fit and healthy following his long battle with the News of the World after being sacked while suffering a stress-related illness brought on by the bullying tactics of Coulson & Co. An employment tribunal awarded him damages of close to £800,000 for unfair dismissal, a record sum in such a case.
Round about the time Matt was starting his winning fight for his rights, I was working with my TV producer pal Brian Klein to help Coulson and the then Sun editor Rebekah Wade (then married to Ross Kemp) prepare a video and graphics-supported presentation for the News International annual conference, staged that year in Mexico.
I found Rebekah charming and Coulson chilling. But I would not describe it as bullying from Andy, more a desire and a demand for perfection. As I prepared another rewrite, I accepted it as professionalism when he said: “I just want it right.”
I now wish I had not described myself to him as “an old hack”.
It seems Neil Wallis suddenly has few friends. Well let me speak up for him. I have known him for more than 25 years in various roles and have always found him thoroughly professional, very humorous and a tiger of a journalist out of the old school. I know of no dark side to the way he operated, but I do know of his caring side. When my late wife was ill he continually went out of his way to enquire after her health, and I am happy to publicly call him a friend.
And the slaughtered Rebekah Brooks was another for whom I had only respect for her drive and enthusiasm as a journalist, and her considerate attitude. As recently as eight weeks ago, she took time out from all her pressures to sort out a Sun contract dispute on behalf of my son, Michael, cutting to the chase and getting things sorted when she heard he was unwell.
Rebekah and Neil are not the ogres they are being painted by people who have never met or worked with them. They are welcome in my company at any time. I just wish a few more of their “friends” would stand up and be heard.
AS LIE DETECTORS COULD become all the rage in cricket, I put myself to the Truth Test this week as I considered the fallout of the hacking scandal. Would I, I wondered, have been tempted to hack in my reporting days, long before the advent of mobiles and voicemail?
The biggest story during my career was England winning the World Cup in 1966. I was right at the heart of things with the Daily Express, and what everybody wanted to know leading up to the final on July 30 was the line up of the England team.
I challenged myself with the fantasy that a private investigator had told me he could hack into Alf Ramsey’s phone. Could I have resisted the temptation of discovering the England team and getting a world scoop?
In my heart and in all honesty, I know I would have given in to the temptation.
As it happened, Alf kept it so quiet that even my best mate in the England squad – Jimmy Greaves – did not know until the morning of the final that he had been axed.
It was the greatest scoop I never got. And I was hacked off.
Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here
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