Sunday, July 17, 2011

A News of the World rat Down Under

Why is it that rats are easier to see than pussycats? I ask this question because it is easy to see the rats jumping the News Corp ship now that the News of the World has gone under, yet the evidence is clear the pussycats have been cuddling up to the media for years. For some reason, however, the corrupting influence of the relationship between government-media-politicos was relatively free from recriminations.

"Rats" are what we used to call stories written off-the-clock for publications other than the one throwing the peanuts your owners were throwing at you. Being a full-time freelancer in the early 1980s, you could say I did a few "rats" in my time.

I do have a News of the World story. In the early 1980s, in the early years of my freelance career in Rotorua, I was contacted out of the blue by the news editor from the paper in London. Apparently a mate of a mate who worked there knew about me and he wanted to see if I could do a story for him. This was – shock, horror, probe – about the English chap who was on a cruise in New Zealand waters and was on the sea between Auckland and Tauranga. The thing was this chap – again shock, horror, probe – had Aids. It is difficult to imagine this now but I had to find out how this situation was being handled and duly reported by collect call to London a story saying the chap had been placed in quarantine in order to prevent the spread of the disease to other travelers.

A while later, a story arose about a New Zealander from Kawerau who had been made the Lord Edgecumbe. There was a bare bones article stating the facts in the Granny Herald so I called my new friend on the news desk at the News of the World. He was into it like a robber’s dog. I rang the newly crowned Lord and got quite a good interview, which I again rang through to London.

It was quite exciting to dictate stories down the phone to London – not quite the same to send an email. Even more exciting was the later receive the clippings and the cheque. The amount of money paid was way out of proportion to what I was being paid per word by New Zealand publishers at that time, and even now I imagine. It was something like one pound a word. So, even though the Aids story was tiny, the money was good, and even better for the Lord Edgecumbe scoop.

It is quite true that there is a fair amount of self-disgust involved in pursuing the innocent for crimes of no more than being seriously ill. Money was no doubt a great motivator but it was quite easy to rationalise that people wanted to read this stuff. So we all suppported the lowest common denominator (LCD) ethos epitomised by the News of the World every time we purchased a colour publication with a "shock, horror, probe!" front page. It was just that the News Corp was better, and more disgusting, at it.

Not long after my News of the World experience, I was picked up as a full-time reporter for the National Business Review on the back of the 1980s share market boom. The money was good, so the rats were killed off.

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