Last Wednesday, Borough Market reopened its doors to the public after the recent London Bridge attack. Making a rare public appearance outside the Baby Shard bunker were News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks and her ultimate boss Rupert Murdoch, both of whom may not be regular customers anywhere in the area for long.
Key to Rupe and Rebekah’s continuing patronage is their role in what is often termed our free and fearless press, forever at pains to tell the world how it no longer indulges in the bad behaviour of old. But one small part of the fallout from the Grenfell Tower fire shows that nothing has changed in the space of thirty years.
In 1988, TV host Russell Harty fell ill. The Independent later told, “As Harty lay in Intensive Care at St James's Hospital in Leeds seriously ill with a hepatitis C virus he'd picked up abroad, he was besieged by the tabloids. The hospital had to keep the shutters in his room closed to prevent the paparazzi snapping him from the tower-blocks opposite”.
The press had, in fact, rented a flat opposite the ward where Harty lay dying. And there was more: “Porters and nurses were offered substantial sums to photograph Harty in his hospital bed”. Harty was gay, and the press assumed he was dying from an AIDS related illness. It got yet worse after he died: the Sun, then edited by the deeply unpleasant Kelvin McFilth, knew they could libel him at will - dead men don’t sue.
Ghoulish and obsessive hospital stalking was not restricted to the Sun. At the G8 summit held in Genoa in 2001, Italian Police went on a rampage of violence against journalists and anyone on the fringe of the protests that routinely follow such gatherings. One journalist, Mark Covell, had been seriously beaten by the cops. He was lying in hospital.
As Nick Davies at the Guardian later reported, “Covell came round to find his shoulder being shaken by a woman who, he understood, was from the British embassy. It was only when the man with her started taking photographs that he realised she was a reporter, from the Daily Mail”. The Mail reporter had bribed her way into his room.
Both these papers now claim to uphold the highest standards of journalistic probity. And for the Sun, there is an added imperative in the push to prove it has left a grim past behind it: the Murdochs’ push to get their hands on the 61% of Sky they do not yet own.
But the Sun is already embroiled in a new round of phone hacking claims. It is also alleged to have been making recent use of illegal blagging. And in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire has come a third blow to the paper’s claims of probity.
The Guardian once more: “King’s College hospital is to lodge a complaint with the press watchdog over a journalist who allegedly impersonated a relative of a victim of the Grenfell Tower fire in order to get an interview with him”. Oh dear! And there is more.
“The hospital is to file a complaint with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) about the behaviour of the Sun reporter. It has also written to News UK, the publisher of the Sun, Times and Sunday Times, about the incident … It is understood that the Sun was trying to get an interview with Mario Gomes, a resident on the 21st floor … Sources say a Sun journalist has been accused of attempting to impersonate a relative of Gomes to hospital staff in order to interview him”.
The Murdoch goons, naturally, refute the claims. “The Sun wants to make it clear that no reporter has ‘impersonated’ any family members … We completely refute any accusation that our employees acted inappropriately”. Mandy Rice Davies situation, though.
Sadly for the Sun and its in-house spin machine, the damage has already been done. Moreover, that damage will be added to all the demerit points the Murdoch mafiosi have already gained, on hacking, blagging, and the wider corporate culture, which has to include the deeply discredited culture at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).
And when all those minus points are totted up, the damage done to the Murdoch empire’s reputation may be more than enough to have the prize that is 100% of Sky denied to them.
But what has changed within the Murdoch power structure is that it is no longer Rupe who calls the shots; sons James and Lachlan are the new strong men, and for them, there is no sentimental attachment to print media. Newspapers may have generated the cash to help sustain the empire as Sky went through its growing pains, but they have now outlived their usefulness. The big money is were their heads are at. And the big money is in Sky.
When the Cosa Rupra first came for 100% of Sky, they were prepared to close the late and not at all lamented Screws, which had been run as a borderline criminal organisation. Now that the Sun is embroiled in not only more phone hacking, but also illegal blagging and the shame of trying improperly to get access to victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the end of the road may be in sight for the Murdochs' oldest UK cash cow.
In any case, the Sun, like the Times titles, is now loss-making. When the choice is between staying in the print game, or getting 100% of Sky, it will be a no-brainer.
As for all those hacks and pundits, they will find that, like the ones at the Screws, when push comes to shove, they are as disposable as yesterday’s papers.
The age of the Super Soaraway Currant Bun was for a time, but not for all time.