The prophets of the book of revelations

After
all the jeers it provoked, editor Andy Coulson and his colleagues tell
Ian Reeves why the News of the World thoroughly deserves its award for
Newspaper of the Year

A SHORT statement from the
editor of the News of the World: “You may have noticed, on television
and in the highbrow magazines, some jealous remarks over the continuing
success of the News of the World.

Our achievement in my view is the most remarkable in the history of
the newspaper world. In what other walk of life has one team, or one
product, kept the lead over all its rivals for half a century? I can
think of none.”

These words don’t belong to current editor Andy
Coulson, however. They come from the newspaper’s annual report of 1966,
written by the legendary Stafford Somerfield.

Coulson wasn’t even
born when his predecessor saw fit to defend his team from the barbs of
its critics, yet the fact that he is now repeating the sentiment,
adding 40 years to that “half a century”, demonstrates the one constant
throughout its history – the News of the World gets up a lot of
journalists’ noses.

The itch today is as strong as ever. The
Guardian, its fiercest detractor, has devoted thousands of words to its
objection to the NoW being crowned Newspaper of the Year at last
month’s British Press Awards. Other editors have joined it in
suggesting a boycott of the awards, although not all of them for the
same reasons.

“I don’t think tabloid journalists have ever been the top of anyone’s popularity list,” says Coulson.

“But
as an industry we spend more of our time beating ourselves up about it
than we’ve probably done at any time before. All we ever seem to do is
criticise ourselves, and criticise the way we do our job.

“Yet
I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, and this goes for everyone on the
NoW, in what we do for a living. The readers are the judges, that’s the
most important thing. And I think we should be proud of what we do.”

He points, by way of example, to two recent stories.

One
in which a desperate mother offered to sell her baby to an
investigations team led by Mazher Mahmood, the other in which a mother
was willing to sell her daughter’s virginity. “Not to overstate the
case, that story, I believe, resulted in a life being saved,” says
Coulson of the first. In the second, the daughter has now been taken
into care.

“These stories, the campaigns that we run, the way we
represent our readers on important issues, I think are something to be
proud of.

“We never celebrate that fact. And I’m not just talking
about the NoW, by the way. Tabloid newspapers in this country do more
for its people than any newspapers in the world. We are connected to
our readers in a way that just doesn’t happen in other countries. And
that’s something we should celebrate.”

Managing editor Stuart Kuttner puts it another way: “Popular journalism is at the very heart of our society.

Snooty,
sneering editors with circulations they shouldbe ashamed of could learn
a great deal from the News of the World. I have spent much of my life
in Fleet Street. Of course we are not perfect, but the team which
comprises this newspaper is in my view the most skilled, tenacious and
professional band in the whole of the industry.”

The team in
question is certainly a fiercely loyal bunch. Working for the paper has
been described as being a bit like being in a cult, and in nearly four
hours spent with its senior executives, certain mantras do tend to keep
surfacing. The key words seem to be “big” and “revelation”. In seven
interviews the former occurs more than 40 times. Big money. Big court
cases. Big Brother. Big campaigns.Big sales spikes. But mostly it is
because they all want to talk about big stories. As chief reporter
Neville Thurlbeck says: “Let’s face it, that’s all journalists want to
do. Break big stories in a big newspaper.”

To
reinforce the message of the paper’s “big” journalistic history,
Kuttner plucks a couple of the books written about the newspaper from
his bookshelf.

“Since
1 October, 1843 it’s been the business of the News of the World to
bring in big stories,” he says, randomly opening one of them at a page
which reads “Awful discovery in Drury Lane: child found pickled in
jar”. He leafs through, pointing out what he describes as “sensational,
scandalous and, dare I say, lurid revelations”.

“The history
books demonstrate that the editors, staff and indeed proprietors never
lost sight of the significance of the big agenda-setting stories,” Kuttner adds.

Key elements

Coulson sets out the key elements of the NoW formula (see box
right), but for him and the others, any discussion will always come
back to the front page. The NoW, arguably more than any other paper,
depends on its front to draw casual readers in.

He says he feels that every element of the paper feels 20 per cent better if there’s a great splash.

“That’s
the truth of it. If you’ve got a great story on page one, the rest of
the paper is automatically lifted. If your page one is not great or is
substandard, in the same way everything feels slightly less
impressive,” he says.

This is evidently ingrained in the paper’s DNA.

All
of the section heads mention the pressure they feel in producing
contenders for the splash every week – a culture Coulson inherited, and
which he’s happy to nurture. There are operationally several”papers
within a paper”, each of which wants the upper hand. It’s a point made
by features editor Jules Stenson.

“The one aspect in features
which I suspect is unique in Fleet Street is that every week I’m
expected to come up with a contender for the splash,” he says. “I’m not
saying we do it every week – news come up with it more than we do – but
there is an expectation from the editor and if I haven’t come up with a
contender, then I haven’t done my job that week.

“It’s not silly,
it’s not wasteful. We don’t chase the same stories, or bid against each
other. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to get one over them
each week. And they’d be lying if they said they weren’t trying to get
one over me. And then we’ll have a drink in the pub afterwards.

“It’s a variation of David English’s creative tension.

When I’ve got the splash, that’s it, I’ve done my job.

It surprises me that more papers aren’t more news driven from their features, and that their features aren’t more revelatory.”

Thought and analysis

The same applies to the sports desk, Mazher Mahmood’s investigations
team and Rav Singh’s showiz desk, all going hell for leather after that
coveted slot. “Rav loves the fact that he got 12 splashes in a year,”
says Coulson. “That’s very important to him. As he’ll tell anyone
who’ll listen.”

But he’s at pains to point out something he reckons would surprise
the critics who have never worked on the paper – and has even surprised
those that have recently returned to the fold after spells elsewhere –
which is how much thought and analysis goes into a typical News of the
World story. If there ever was a time when liberties were taken, or
“flyers” were encouraged, Coulson is certain that’s not the case
now.

“We talk about our stories in great detail prior to
publication. I’m very lucky to have a great executive team here with so
much experience. We’ve got fan-tastic lawyers. Tom Crone, I believe, is
the best newspaper lawyer there is. And the group of us – with the back
bench, the news desk, the features desk – we spend a lot of time
talking about stories, thinking them through and trying to second guess
any problems.

It’s blindingly obvious to state it, but the kind of stories the NoW does are very difficult to crack.

And the preparation that’s needed now, it has to be painstaking.

“Even
those who we brought back who had worked here before were surprised by
the degree of discussion and analysis that goes on before we decide to
publish a story.

“But it has to be that way today. The business
that we’re in, our mistakes are so public – and we have made a couple
of them, you put ’em right when you’ve got it wrong – that you have to
do everything you possibly can. That’s a responsibility that runs right
the way down from reporters. You’ve got to think your stories through
before you press the button.”

Serious character

If you were selecting a tabloid editor from central casting, Coulson
wouldn’t make the first audition – unlike his friend Piers Morgan or
his deputy Neil Wallis. He’s a serious character who speaks with a
studious intensity that would surprise those who have swallowed the
myths about Britain’s tabloids. He’s 39, and says of his rise – all the
way from the Evening Echo in Basildon – that he “never had a plan other
than I knew I didn’t want to be writing a showbiz column beyond the age
of 30”.

Barring a very brief sojourn on the Daily Mail, he’s a News
International man through and through, to a degree that he is at his
least relaxed when the subjects of bosses Les Hinton or Rupert Murdoch
come up. He admits to feeling uncomfortable talking about them,
although he says that their enthusiasm for their papers is as strong as
ever.

However, one task he doesn’t find tough is deflecting
criticisms from some quarters that his paper’s success is all down to
chequebook journalism and being enslaved to certain PR firms.

“It’s
not a new criticism. I’m not ashamed to say we buy stories. Of course
we buy stories. Show me a popular newspaper that doesn’t. We pay big
money for big stories. There’s absolutely no point and no reason why we
should hide the fact. It’s the business we’re in.”But that’s not the
only way we get those stories.

We don’t just write large cheques.
We work very hard. It’s not as simple as a phone call from Max
Clifford. That’s not to say we don’t have a great relationship with Max
and others like him. We do. He’s the best of his type, by a million
miles and he’s got a long history with the NoW.

“But the fact of
it is in the last year he represented Rebecca Loos only after we’d
broken the story. He wasn’t involved in the FA story at all until the
last week, when he represented Faria Alam. And he wasn’t involved with
the Blunkett story at any point.

“I’ve got great respect for the
bloke. But I also have great respect for the reporters who bring in the
stories, and it’s they who deserve the real credit for those.”

Stafford
Somerfield’s 1966 report also notes, rather proudly, that it takes
15,000 trees to print one edi-tion of the News of the World. That the
number would be considerably smaller today is not just down to
advancements in recycling. The NoW’s circulation, like most other
national titles, is sliding – down eight per cent year-on-year in
recent figures.

“It’s a very tough market,” Coulson says. “We’re
not alone. We’re faring better than many. But there are several
elements to it. The whole industry has got its problems.”

He’s no
fan of giveaway CDs as a solution. “You’re telling your reader that
it’s only worth, in our case, 80p if it’s got a free CD slapped inside,
repeatedly.

One of the most depressing aspects is that they create zero loyalty,” Coulson says.

“You
can give away a full-length movie that they’ll keep in their DVD
collection, but when you go back and ask them where they got it from a
week later, they can’t tell you. But what we’re pleased about is the
NoW is still able to put on real increases with its stories, its
journalism, so there’s a lot to be pleased about.”

Beckham’s affair, he reckons, put on 500,000.

But
whatever the sales story, at least Coulson won’t have to follow
Somerfield’s lead in writing to Press Gazette to complain that his
paper “never gets a prize of any sort”.

“Do you not think a prize is deserved for this achievement?” he wrote in 1968.

“Perhaps for being the most successful newspaper. It could be a very small prize.”

The chief reporter

NEVILLE THURLBECK

To the critics who say that our Newspaper of the Year award, and my
Scoop of the Year award, were awards for chequebook journalism, I would
say this. The Beckham and Blunkett stories were both broken without any
money changing hands.

Beckham involved three months of laborious investigation in
Australia and Spain, gathering hundreds of little pieces of evidence to
make the story work, to build the story.

The story worked not
because of the editor’s chequebook, but because he allowed me three
months off-diary to research a good tip. It was the sort of big
decision made by big editors, which used to produce big stories in big
papers.

Sadly most newspapers don’t resource editors like this
newspaper does. And it shows in the absolute poverty of exclusives
around in other newspapers.

Many of those newspapers are now our
harshest critics but that doesn’t stop them writing literally hundreds
of thousands of words following up our scoops. Most of them never break
a story from one month to the next.

In the case of Beckham and
Sven we only paid money to the two girls, Rebecca Loos and Faria Alam,
after we had broken the main stories.

Blunkett didn’t cost us a penny. I got it from one of my best contacts, researched it and that was that.

To
produce the Beckham story, I had to find every piece of the jigsaw.
People supplied me with evidence in terms of telephone numbers, Sim
cards, text messages, which proved so damning against David Beckham in
the end.

I approached Rebecca before publishing the story but she
didn’t want to know. So we produced that story using the old-fashioned
methods. And it really was laborious, painstaking on the ground,
knocking on doors, asking people to help, most of the time done over a
drink or a meal. There was no question of us having paid big cash for
that story at that point.

After the first splash, then we bought
her up. I’m happy to admit to that. We pay six-figure sums for the
right stories. This was clearly one of the rare stories worth that
amount. That was the easy bit. If that story was as easy as handing
over a cheque then we’d always have world beating stories in the NoW
every week.

You won’t get a story like this without the
old-fashioned work. You won’t get the evidence. All you’ll get is
someone’s say-so. And as we all know, you need to get more.

The crucial elements

COULSON’S COMPONENTS

Revelation: “It is obviously the driver.”

Investigations: “We’ve had a really strong 18 months in terms of
some of the stuff that Maz has been doing. We’ve got some big court
cases coming up. The dirty bomb plot – we have to be careful what we
say, but there will be a trial about that which I think is a very
important, very significant story. The Kieron Fallon race-fixing saga
is still ongoing. I think that was an absolutely fantastic story.”

Campaigns:
“A fundamental part of the newspaper. And we’ve had some good
successes. We’re proud of our bullying campaign, and the random drug
tests campaign, for which the first pilot scheme is now underway. Those
are two of the bigger campaigns, but there are smaller campaigns. We’re
running one at the moment for war heroes who aren’t getting their
medals, and the government has already accepted that it’s got to
improve what it’s doing there.”

Sport: “A central part of the
NoW. The sports pages are a minor production miracle, to be honest. We
manage to get 24 live pages out, with every single game covered, into
our first edition. I’ve got the most fantastic head of sport in Mike
Dunn, who does this incredible job in getting the thing out the door
and is as interested in the front of the paper as he is the back. He
ran the Ashley Cole tap-up story.”

Sex: “Always important. The
old-fashioned sex stories, which had that kind of mock indignation,
taking the moral high ground, I think the public sees through them now.
So the approach that we have with swinging stories or stories like that
is we try to inject a bit of humour into it. That’s a key part of it,
having a good laugh. We had a story last week about ex-EastEnder Dean
Gaffney, a classic kiss and tell, but it was a bit of fun really. So we
try to create at least a couple of good belly laughs.”

Columnists:
“Hague’s doing a good job for us. Ulrika’s getting stronger and
stronger. I don’t think there’s a Sunday showbiz journalist, or any
daily ones to be honest with you, who can match Rav. His enthusiasm is
just unbelievable. And he’s a story machine, he breaks an incredible
number.”

Politics: “We’ve upped the heavy coverage as well, and
in the lead-up to the elections you’ll see that. To his credit, Charles
Clarke actually sat down with Maz and was interviewed by him. It was a
good strong read. Maz gave him a hard time.

“Our readers are passionate about certain issues and want to feel those are being represented by their paper.

The
issues we’ve concentrated on, such as health – we were one of the first
newspapers to really tell about the MRSA scandal. And that’s the great
thing about a paper the size of the NoW, when you touch on the right
issues, the mailbag just explodes. The letters just flood in. MRSA
sparked the most amazing reaction from our readers.

“All that
stuff is very important. But it’s blindingly obvious what the paper
stands or falls by is its revelations, particularly what’s on page one.
That’s the main job.”

The senior associate editor

GARY THOMPSON

The thing for me that sums us up is the For Sarah campaign, that’s
still ongoing. It’s an issue that I totally believe we’re right on.

The right of a parent to protect a child, the right of a child to be
safe, completely outweighs the right of the paedophile to live in
anonymity, although I’m not saying that people should be hounded. That
campaign was researched so thoroughly.

There are people around
the paper, who know more or as much about that issue than people in
Westminster. A guy called Mark Class, whose daughter was abducted,
raped and murdered came to talk to us all about the issues. He said it
boils down to this: if you’ve got a predatory paedophile living next
door to you, would you want to know? And if people say “no” to that
question, they’re either lying or deluded. No reasonable person could
not want to be able to protect their children.

I felt we really
had the public behind us and we still have. They really cared about it,
and we fought hard and will keep fighting hard. I think that sums up
what the News of the World is about. Something like 17 different bits
of legislation came out of the For Sarah campaign.

I think there
are a lot of issues [in the Name and Shame campaign] that are worth
thinking about in depth, but I think we went about it in the right way.
It was in many ways quite shocking, but it was a shocking situation.
And so tragic to see, a couple of years later, a similar thing happen
in Soham.

So I think what we did was right and I still
passionately believe in it. If you talk to people around the paper,
everyone was united behind it.

There’s an email link on our
website and we still get emails from victims, asking for help. The
founder of Phoenix Survivors [an organisation for victims of child
abuse, based in Colchester] said to me, the NoW stuck up for victims
and made them empowered about their plight. It’s made them feel that
they’re not alone and they’re talking to each other.

That’s got to be a good thing.

If
The Guardian or whoever want to carp about our campaign, then let them.
We know what we’re doing is right. And we know we’ve got huge support
from the readers and from the victims.

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