Ian Reeves watches the fireworks as editors face the select committee
On the wall behind Gerald Kaufman’s head in the committee room in Portcullis House is a mural splashed with parliamentary-sounding words and phrases -Tolerance, Openness, Debate.
As Piers Morgan took his seat in front of the U-shaped desk of interrogators, maybe his eyes fixed on the phrase right at the top of the mural: Endless Talking.
Never one to dip his toe in the water when a fully fledged splash bomb will do, Morgan leapt from the top springboard, and it was a while before the spray subsided.
He was not there, he said, to defend the tabloid art but to celebrate it, and he did so with passion and verve, attacking those who perpetuate the myth that tabloids are staffed by “subhuman creatures taking pleasure in destroying people’s lives”.
He railed at the emotive language (“gobbled up and spat out”) used by his inquisitors, spat at the portrayal of the press pack as a “shrieking, baying, marauding gang of thugs” and questioned the motives of those who hauled the tabloids there every 10 years for their “ritual bollocking”. Back in 1993 it was Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie who faced down a similar committee headed by the same Gerald Kaufman.
DÃ©jÃ vu, Gerald?
Kaufman to MacKenzie, 1993: “I have to say that your somewhat aggressive manner does not help us in coming down on your side.”
Kaufman to Morgan, 2003: “You’re here as a guest – not to put your own questions but to answer ours, courteously. Do you think you can proceed on that basis?”
The word on the mural behind Kaufman’s left ear was ‘Aristotle’, which advanced students of cockney rhyming slang will know well. (Aristotle = bottle; bottle and glass = arse.) As Kaufman’s patience evaporated, Morgan was in danger of find himself out on his Aris.
But no. An hour later, his mesmerising stint was over and it was the turn of The Sun and the News of the World – the Axis of Evil, in Morgan parlance. Where the Mirror editor had faced the committee alone, News International presented a four-strong broadside of Stuart Kuttner, Andy Coulson, Rebekah Wade and Tom Crone. This was an altogether calmer exchange, though none the less passionate as a defence of the workings of the PCC. Michael Fabricant’s luxuriant eyebrows shot up at Wade’s description of the system as “perfect”, even though she stressed no fewer than 31 toughenings of the code had taken place over the past decade, and that more would undoubtedly happen. It’s a system of endless change.
Kuttner, eradicating all traces of nostalgia from his voice, recalled a time when the press was out of control, stealing pictures off mantelpieces, climbing over garden walls to take pictures and even impersonating doctors to get bedside interviews. Now, he said, “We are living in a different age, in an industry that bears no resemblance to its former self.”
The NI Four also battled with one of the fundamental flaws of these committee sessions. The “ordinary people” – on whom the hearings are supposed to focus – have insisted on anonymity. Who are they? How many of them are there? What are their specific grievances? None of these answers are available to the press witnesses, yet they are all being asked to defend themselves against them.
By the time Alan Rusbridger took the stand alongside The Guardian’s readers editor, Ian Mayes, the room had virtually cleared. The media pack had left in search of skimmed lattes, the sketch writers to work on their descriptions of Wade’s hair and half of the MPs to vote, prompted by the division bell. Aptly so, for the remaining questioners drove home the broadsheet and tabloid divide.
Rusbridger, who could never be accused of not thinking very deeply about the issue, admitted to frustration at the behaviour of certain editors, and of the “ostrich-like” behaviour of certain parts of the industry. “The truth will dawn too late that we can’t go on as we are. Things can’t stand still however much we may want them to. External forces will not allow it.”
“Thank you”, said Frank Doran, “That could well be the opening paragraph of our report.”
If it is, then the industry must also hope that the report heeds the phrase on the mural that was directly above Kaufman’s head: Freedom of Speech.