The whole News International scandal has spiralled into some ridiculously insane combination of conspiracy theory and witch hunt. It has become an excuse for drooling Ed Miliband – the man with the mesmerising mouth – to get more TV airtime and to leer at the camera in an increasingly unappealing way. I seem to remember it was the Labour not the current Conservative government sucking up to Rupert Murdoch’s empire 2005-2010
But, yesterday morning, I woke up to the sound of the Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson getting attacked by former London Mayor ‘Red Ken’ Livingston because it was reported in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times that he (Stephenson) had received five weeks of free hospitality (worth £12,000) from Champneys health spa while recovering from the removal of a pre-cancerous tumour in his leg at a time when the News of the World’s now-arrested former Deputy Editor Neil Wallis was doing PR both for the Met and Champneys.
In fact, the boss of Champneys was a personal friend of Stephenson. Why the hell would he check who handled PR for Champneys?
Perhaps the Met Commissioner should not go around accepting £12,000 gifts – even if ‘accepting gifts’ is a long-established tradition of Met officers – but the swirling implications were that it was all somehow part of the phone hacking scandal.
Then I switched on the TV to find John Whittingdale, chairman of the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee which is due to question former News of the World editor Rebekah née Wade now Brooks tomorrow. He was being asked if he was going to resign as chairman of the committee because flame-haired Rebekah was a Facebook Friend of his.
Hellfire! If Facebook Friends count for anything, I could never review a comedy gig and would get arrested as an accessory after the fact in many a dubious minor crime.
The fragrant Rebekah had already been arrested.
And then, yesterday afternoon, Sir Paul Stephenson resigned!
We are now at a point where the UK’s largest-selling newspaper has been closed; the UK’s most powerful newspaper executive has been arrested; the UK’s most important police officer has resigned; and there is a smell of Witch Hunt in the air.
It feels like Westminster politicians – recently exposed by the press in the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal – are gleefully taking their revenge while Open Season lasts. And the media are playing dog-bites-dog in the Rupert Murdoch morality stakes.
But, as someone tweeted, in the recent Twitter flurry of Shakespearean Murdoch quotes - Let he who is without PIN hack the first phone…
What and where is the line you don’t cross in journalism and PR?
Erasing the voicemail messages of missing (later known to be murdered) 13 year-old Milly Dowler, collecting the telephone numbers of dead British soldiers’ families, 7/7 terrorist bombing victims and so on… perhaps, in the US, even trying to get the personal phone numbers of 9/11 victims. That is not acceptable.
But presumably most people would accept phone hacking, secretly recording and secretly filming is entirely acceptable to expose some people’s criminal acts: murderers, paedophiles and fraudsters, for example.
When it comes to celebrities, it is only slightly more iffy; but most people probably reckon invasion of privacy comes with being a celeb… and they enjoy reading the resultant titillation.
So where exactly does the line lie?
It is like PR in showbusiness and the media.
Where is the line?
In the early 1970s, there was a sex-for-airplay scandal revealed by the News of the World. Janie Jones was supplying prostitutes to BBC Radio 1 DJs on behalf of record labels wanting their artists’ records to be played on air.
On BBC TV’s Top of the Pops (which had varied producers over the years) it was often assumed ‘perks’ were required if you wanted your rising but not yet mega-famous group to appear on the make-or-break chart show.
Where is the line? A gift of a bottle of booze? Supplying cocaine (or ‘flowers’, as I think many record companies called it on their lists of expenses)? Prostitutes? Blackmail?
When BBC TV, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 or Sky buy a major blockbuster movie, the distributors tend to tell them they can only have it if they also buy a bundle of less-good movies as part of the deal. That feels like good marketing by the distributors, rather than blackmail or corruption.
It is equally common for agents, managers and PR people to tell TV producers that, if they want an ‘A’ list star on their show, then they will also have to have a lesser, up-and-coming ‘D’ list starlet on the show. I think most people would accept that as a strong negotiating stance.
There is the case of a famous, high-rating TV chat show where the producer asked a PR person for major star A as a guest on the show. It would have been a coup for the show. The PR said, “Well, if you want A on the show, it would be nice if you could also put X on the show.”
X was a struggling starlet.
The chat show producer said No – because she wasn’t really right for the show and it would, in a way, have lowered the show’s perceived standard in guests.
It was then implied conversationally that “we wouldn’t want the photographs to be made public, would we?”
Every week, that particular PR person turned up at recordings of the show with different lovely girls on his arm – sometimes three girls – a blonde, a brunette and a redhead. The TV producer was a bit of a philanderer; it was for him to choose whether he wanted the blonde, the brunette or the redhead. Or two of them. Or all three. After the show, they would all go back to a London flat where there were mirrors on the walls.
You and I can see as clear as crystal that there were cameras behind the mirrors. The producer was obviously more of a philanderer than a great thinker.
He thought the mirrors were just sexy.
It was reminiscent of British film star Diana Dors, who used to hold orgies at her house. On one occasion the great British comedian Bob Monkhouse ended up in bed with some girl or other and heard a rustling behind a mirror. He discovered it was Diana Dors and her chums looking on: something they liked to do.
As did the PR in this case.
Whatever the reason, X the struggling starlet did appear on the high-rating TV chat show.
Had the PR person crossed the line? Or was it just strong negotiating?
If she scratches your back, you may have to scratch mine.
It is not a lone case.
There are even rumours of a British PR person who has photos on the walls of his private office of famous people caught in flagrante.
It shows he is powerful.
The rumours run that he also has naked photos of an ex-member of the Royal Family.
True? Or just a strong negotiating position?
Where is the line?
Is Rupert Murdoch really any dirtier than anyone else in the British media?