When Max Clifford died in prison before Christmas, most British newspapers ran lengthy obituaries detailing the lurid lengths the disgraced publicist went to to keep celebrity clients either on or off their front pages. Truth, it was clear, played only a bit part in these stories. ‘I was always instinctively good at lying’, Clifford cheerfully admitted. In a debate at the Oxford Union, he boasted: ‘Every day, every week, every month, a lot of the lies that you see in the newspapers, in the magazines, on television, on the radio, are mine.’
What the obits omitted was the newspapers’ own role in enabling the perpetration of these frauds. Their willingness to be co-opted in his fictions if they led to a good headline was a component part of the Clifford business model. It came back to bite him in the end, but even though hidden at the time, it was an even greater Faustian bargain for the press. True, everyone remembers those headlines. But no one, not even at the Sun – tellingly, the only paper not to carry a full-length Clifford obituary – actually believed that comedian Freddie Starr ate someone’s hamster or that David Mellor wore a Chelsea football shirt for trysts with a lover.
The full costs of this airy disregard for readers’ trust (indeed for readers tout court) are only now becoming evident. They play out on two dimensions. At industry level, very roughly speaking, global press circulation has historically reflected levels of trust in the media. A simpler world, admittedly, but peak trust and circulation coincided in the late 1950s and have broadly declined in parallel ever since. As ever, coincidence is not necessarily cause, but a plausible story is that declining press standards and dumbing down induced by the advent of TV and burgeoning celebrity culture eroded first trust and then the number of people willing to shell out for products that were now competing in an entertainment rather than information economy that the papers were ill-equipped to play in.
With supreme irony, as demonstrated in every performance of Ink, James Graham’s beautifully spiky play about the birth of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, when for once a newspaper took the trouble to listen to readers it was a brilliant success. Unfortunately, it was about the first and last time until nearly too late. From its joyful iconoclastic beginnings the Sun rapidly lapsed into the complacent cynicism that led directly to the Clifford conspiracies. As for the rest of the industry, ‘I don’t think anyone thought about readers at all, except vaguely as circulation numbers,’ one ex-newspaper manager told a forum recently.
By 2011, levels of trust in the media were so diminished that when the phone-hacking scandal broke, some publications had no reserves of good will left to draw on. As a result, the News of the World, then selling 2.5m copies a week, evaporated from one week to the next in the most dramatic corporate vanishing act since accountancy firm Arthur Andersen was dragged down by the implosion of Enron. Note that the NotW was probably not the sole offender. Newspapers are gossipy places, and as the same manager concedes, it stretches credibility to hamster-consuming dimensions to believe that once hacking techniques were known about, rival publications weren’t also tempted to use them. They just weren’t caught.
Newspapers are nonetheless right to insist that a vibrant fourth estate is essential to keep others on the straight and narrow. But the corollary, which they are less keen to stress, is that the press itself must be honest as well as competent. A corrupt, incompetent press is as dangerous to democracy as to itself – the second dimension of its importance. For the dire consequences, look no further than the vacuum it has left for the spread of fake news (the very definition of Clifford’s stock-in-trade), the solipsism of social media and recent attempts at voter manipulation, on both sides of the Atlantic. Equally culpable is the failure, in the UK at least, to develop a real business press that would go beyond the advertising-driven reporting of company figures and the views of City analysts to probe and critique the workings of business-political complex as a whole (the BBC, so good in many other areas, is the limpest performer of all in this respect). The demise of the monthly Management Today in a country whose economic problems are so clearly rooted in the way its companies are run says it all.
How has newspaper management gone so far off track? If a week is a long time in politics, it is an eternity in the news business, whose greatest strength – its simple, brilliantly grooved daily or weekly production schedules – is also reflected in its greatest weakness: the inability to think beyond them. Hence the infirmity of purpose, leading to a fatal slide from informing to entertaining as operating principle; and the inability to see that the only distinctive thing it had to monetise – and therefore to nurture and measure – in the long term was trust, and that was for readers to deliver rather than for it to invent in the newsroom.
For all their faults, I still love newspapers, consuming them in unreasonable quantity and at unreasonable cost. Can they survive? We have to hope so. What is certain is that to do so, they will have to do a better job than in the past. That means changing attitudes, which doesn’t come naturally to a trade that has always thought it knows best. But this time it can’t wing it. As the late Peter Preston noted in his last column for the Observer, it’s time for journalism to do a job it has been avoiding for ages: clean its own stables. We should celebrate its triumphs, he said: ‘They burnish our business. But they are not, by any means, the whole of the business: a business that means treating readers in a jam like human beings, identifying distress, becoming a functioning part of society rather than commentators at its edges. In short, seeking to be worthy of trust in the hole where admiration ought to be.’