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Declan Lynch: Overtaken by spin-monkeys with corporate ambitions

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George Best had just died. And outside Old Trafford, as the TV reporters did their pieces to camera, a man was seen getting out of his car.

He explained to one of the TV crews that he was a press photographer, and that he would be grateful if they would let him use their lights for a picture he was about to take.

Recognising the need of a fellow practitioner with a deadline, the TV folk were able to observe him reaching back into his car to retrieve a single red rose. Solemnly, with the assured air of a man who had done such things many times before, he placed the rose with great care on the railings outside Old Trafford, along with a moving note of farewell to George.

This would be his picture, which would appear in tomorrow's tabloid with a suitably uplifting caption giving the false impression that this was a tribute left by one of George's fans.

And later he would explain that he never goes anywhere in the car without candles or perhaps a small table, the makings of an altar dedicated to some tragic victim. And above all, he would never leave the house without a child's shoe, a single heart-breaking little sandal which can be photographed at the scene of some terrible accident, and which is guaranteed the front page.

For any decent, right-thinking person, there is of course only one possible response to this man's methods, and that is to laugh out loud.

But then we've been laughing out loud at the blackguardism of the tabloid press since at least 1928, when Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the Broadway hit The Front Page, later a Billy Wilder movie starring Jack Lemmon as a star reporter, Walter Matthau as a ruthless editor and Carol Burnett as a whore who makes the one noble gesture in the entire farce when she attempts suicide by jumping out of the window -- a move which startles the gentlemen of the press for a moment, until one of them regains his composure by rushing to the phone and barking down the line: "Shady Lady Leaps For Love!"

And yet there is one massive difference between these characters, and the executive class hacks of News International who have been entertaining us in their own horrible way -- and the difference is, that you could never imagine a Walter Matthau or a Jack Lemmon type being ushered in the back door of 10 Downing Street, like Rupert Murdoch, or having Christmas dinner with the Prime Minister, as Rebekah Brooks did.

Indeed you could laugh at their low-life ways, because there was a strange kind of integrity in all that. Like the old-school tabloid hound Paul McMullan, who became a star of TV news with his horrible hack's suit that he wore all week, and what looked like some medieval skin condition on the right side of his face, such men did not dream of becoming the government media adviser, standing at the back of the room at press conferences looking important, as Andy Coulson did.

If they had a dream at all, it was McMullan's dream of retiring from journalism and running a pub, not to become the Assistant Deputy Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs at the Department of the Environment.

I believe it is this phony "professionalism" which has eventually taken all the good out of the dark trade of Wapping. With their crisp white shirts and ties and their big-swinging-mickey executive poses as they stand over a computer screen which contains the latest load of old cobblers which they are putting out there, they call to mind Con Houlihan's line that the modern newspaper office has "all the atmosphere of a suburban pharmacy".

MEET THE MURDOCHS LIVING SECTION

Until the arrival of these spin-monkeys with their corporate ambitions, many journalists were unable to drive a car -- certainly the percentage of non-drivers was high, compared with normal members of the human race. No, you wouldn't see the old-timers emerging from their grand house in Kensington to get behind the wheel of an enormous Range Rover to cruise up to Downing Street for a "briefing".

With their spurious "professionalism", members of this new hack elite may look like they belong in business class, but then like Columbo, the best journalists are usually not the best dressed. Moreover this latest ambition of tabloid hounds to live beside the prime minister and to weekend at Chequers and effectively to govern Great Britain, is virtually a guarantee of bad journalism.

Always it is an ugly thing when journalists and politicians spend too much time together, talking to each other and taking each other seriously, creating a world view which inflates their mutual sense of self-importance and which elevates the essentially trivial nature of their discourse.

Indeed, Rebekah Brooks's initial statement in her defence was an abysmal piece of hackery, with sub-literate lines like ". . . it is inconceivable that I knew or, worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations".

Maybe she meant "activities" rather than "allegations", maybe she really doesn't know the difference or doesn't care.

Consumed as she is with her corporate strategies, the problem is not that such people are too ambitious, but that they have all the wrong ambitions.

Sunday Independent