It was summer. I’d learned to fear the phone on Friday afternoons when the weekend was opening up and the Sundays were working on their stories. So I was slightly nervous as I relaxed on the terrace of my Oxford apartment, owned by Robert Maxwell and shortly to be condemned as uninhabitable. (It might have been a slum to the inspectors but the rain didn’t always drip onto my bed and it had a full darkroom with stereo sound. Close to heaven really.)
That afternoon it was Maxwell’s Sunday People that called, stirring the actual bells on the rotary phone sitting at my side on the end of a long cord. They’d found a dirty vicar in the idyllic village of Penn in Buckinghamshire and I needed to get a picture of him before he went to ground. I jumped into my Golf GT go-faster press-mobile and picked up Richard my scribbler and partner on the Oxon beat. We sped down the M40 listening to Donald Fagan while Richard used the in-car shortwave to pick up the details from the desk: the Reverend had left his wife and was living with another woman. Red meat to the red tops and to Richard (who later went on to edit one of them). Our fees were as good as in the bank.
First stop was the vicarage where the wife confirmed the story and obligingly provided the onward address. Next stop was the love-nest and as Richard pushed the bell I stood behind his shoulder with an 80mm lens for the necessary headshot, finger firmly poised on the motor drive. I still love the sound of the Nikon F2 rattling through film. It’s so solid. Nothing compares. The door opened, headshots were gathered and the doorstep interview proceeded. The vicar corroborated the whole story and we were set to head back to process film and wet-scan a print on the rotary transmitter to London.
Things were never this easy, and they weren’t.
The cohabiting woman was disabled with advanced multiple sclerosis and the vicar was there as a carer. It was utterly charming, and poison to our story. We slunk to the village pub to regroup and there Richard proved his worth: the tabloids never fail to get their story and Richard wasn’t going to let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Before we’d downed even an inch of our warm beer Richard was pumping coins into the bar-side phone as he filed the story of the vicar who could not stop the rumors that… And so the whole lie was filed without a word of a lie yet utterly devoid of truth and my photos stood as evidence. The simple insertion of the word “rumor” resulted in a meager (but billable) 6 column inches that tore a man’s life apart for the prurient titillation of two million readers as they unfurled the pages in search of partially clad women and soccer results.
I couldn’t scrape the grime off my hands. Like a modern Lady Macbeth I tried to scrub the guilt from my conscience but it sits there to this day along with two shattering realizations: the gulf between facts and truth is as wide as the sub editor’s imagination (which is vast and insatiable) and there was nothing I could do from within the system to change it. I could either take the call or refuse it, but nothing I could say or do would divert the media machine from its grasping, lying mission to feed readers to their voracious advertisers. And the deeper I thought about it the harder the realization that this process of bending facts to tell untruths is universal. It might be that I approve the political stance of one paper over another but however camouflaged the same machinery drives the presses.
Within six months I took my first desk job as Production Editor at Rex Features where maybe I could bring influence in other ways. The Oxford apartment was boarded up and I took the bus to London sans darkroom, sans camera but with a mission.
Of course I failed. But whenever I hear people bemoaning the unreliability of online journalism and celebrating the glory days of print media when it stood for something, I rejoice the great unbundling that’s hacked at the core of a corrupt industry. The aging demographic of print readers may yet hang on to their beliefs, or maybe they only ever wanted the crosswords, reviews, wine deals and travel bargains, but the population at large has turned a more skeptical eye on the infinite gush of information now available and I celebrate the privilege of living to see people actually question what they read. Journalism thrives as never before.
But that was a day…