How Ethiopia trip put PCC problems in perspective

I’ve done a fair bit of Press Complaints Commission-bashing in my time, but I confess I was gladdened at the sight of chairman Sir Christopher Meyer smugly celebrating his latest escape from the clutches of the Commons’ Star Chamber.

Meyer’s charmingly insouciant insistence that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee had been “a tad unfair” in criticising the press watchdog and its puckish prince had me going all goose-pimply with admiration and recalling that I might myself have led the PCC if I had played my cards right.

Not the PCC, of course, oh dear me, no. I’m talking about the Ethiopian branch of the Family Fourth Estate.

While on a 10-day trip to Ethiopia to check that money squeezed out of Mirror readers by Cap’n Bob had been spent on clinics and medical staff and not looted by the powers that be (no irony there, then!), I was squired around a couple of newspaper editors’ offices in Addis Ababa by a shockingly selfimportant civil servant who proceeded, over lunch, to float the idea that I help his Government “set up a Press Council”.

My interest in taking the job lasted no longer than our liquid lunch at the city’s Lalibela restaurant, particularly when it was intimated that the full force of the blighted nation’s latest tyrant would be put at my disposal to bring the wilful men and women of the Ethiopian press corps into line.

“No, no,” I insisted, “you can’t use the threat of criminal proceedings – or worse – to control the press… your media must be free to report and comment as it sees fit. Any controls must be self-regulated.”

Sir Christopher would have been proud. The Man from the Ministry, however, was dismayed. Like a morally endangered News of the Screws reporter, he made his excuses and left me with the bill. Which is why today I am keeping hens in Northumberland, instead of beerily trudging the dusty streets of Addis in a supersized but crumpled Martin Bell suit and a battered Panama, bent gleefully on abusing the odd aberrant Abyssinian editor.

Of course, any time Sir Christopher needs a hand, I’ll be there in a flash… How deliciousy devious of David Seymour to recall in last week’s Press Gazette the shameful details of my final fateful meeting with the media’s Man of the Moment, Alastair Campbell.

Did I honestly hurl 100cwt of Mirror editor’s upholstered leather revolving chair across the room at my cowering political editor as I bade him take his leave?

Guilty as charged, dear reader.

And were these really my last, furious words of farewell to the departing devil’s advocate: “You always wanted the editor’s chair, so take the fucking thing with you!”

Well, aah, not quite, Lord Copper.

I wish they had been. But then we always come up with the best line after the camera has stopped rolling, don’t we?

Any regrets? Only that I missed.

And that a rather good political editor – who had, after all, gone out of his way to introduce his new editor to two premiers-in-waiting and to one of the best Prime Ministers we never had – should have left the Mirror fold and travelled via Today to the Dark Side of the Street.

That day I felt lied to and betrayed.

Perhaps I was the first victim of the spinmeister’s black art. But it was far from Campbell’s fault alone. I was caught in the crossfire of a dispute between diabolical enemies. My boss, David Montgomery, wanted my political editor out and Campbell was eager to oblige. But at a price. And on his terms.

Simpleton that I was, I believed that each held part of the key to the Mirror’s recovery from the misery that Maxwell had bequeathed. Wrongly, I believed I could mediate a peace agreement, when in reality both devil and deep blue sea were determined to keep their distance.

The tirade of four-letter words and the Upholstered Flying Object that followed Alastair through my office door that day only served to point the way things have since gone… A newspaper that once boasted “the world’s biggest daily sale” is reduced to the status of also-ran, despite the heroic efforts of successive editors and their journalists.

And a political system so destroyed by spin, sleaze and “sexed-up” dossiers is now more reviled by a cynical, unbelieving populace than at any time in the modern era.

By the time you read this, my old pal Kelvin MacKenzie will surely have been hauled off LBC’s airwaves for frightening the London radio station’s army of loyal little old lady listeners.

And he will undoubtedly have treated the broadcasting standards bozos to the kind of four-letter tongue-lashing that once lit up the lives of so many colleagues from Bouverie Street and Wapping.

He’s been standing in for morning presenter Nick Ferrari this week while the LBC favourite has been soaking up rum and cokes rather than rays on the (beachless)island of Madeira.

A farewell party for Ferrari at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club was treated to Kelv’s uproarious story of my recovery from listeria meningitis, when “Banksy awoke from a two-week coma having forgotten how to read and write”!

Never one to let the facts interfere with a good story, the former Sun editor got it wrong: my reading and writing skills were unimpaired; my brain had actually forgotten how to walk, which, while painful, was even funnier than Kelvin’s version.

As ever from the Wapping stable, total bollocks – but wonderfully well told!

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