From hack to Hell and back again

Graham Johnson. (2012). Hack: Sex, drugs and scandal from inside the tabloid jungle. London: Simon & Schuster.

Graham Johnson was for years an important member of the Screws of the World news team. His time at the paper predated the phone-hacking scandal, but Hack clearly shows that the culture which led to the criminal behaviour was well-established on the paper.

Johnson owns up to some pretty awful scams himself, including ruining the lives of people who were only featured in the paper to further its commercial success.

At the heart of the paper’s methods was destroying the lives of people who could not fight back. As Johnson puts it, they were usually too poor and powerless to prevent the NotW from giving them a right royal fucking over.

This is a terrible tale of what can happen when a talented reporter goes off the rails. Johnson worked for the News of the World for years and his insider story reveals a rotten culture. So rotten, in fact, that the phone-hacking and police bribery that finally brought the paper undone in July 2011 seem to be the inevitable end-result of endemic corruption and a conscious disregard for morality, ethics and the law.

Johnson freely admits to making up stories as a routine. He documents payments to criminals, drug dealers, dodgy middlemen, pimps and prostitutes in pursuit of sleazy and ultimately empty tales. Some were true, or half-true and others were entirely fiction. At the time Johnson didn’t care; all he was concerned about was his own reputation as a ‘gun’ reporter able to get the scoop and front page splash that would boost the sales of his paper and grow his own profile.

Eventually Johnson faces ruin when one made up story comes undone.

Sent on the trail of a supposed giant wild cat – the Beast of Bodmin – by Rebekah Wade (yes that Rebekah) Johnson and his photographer, Steve Grayson fake up the story, but are found out.

The image of the beast is too good to be true, but Johnson and Grayson believe that Wade and other senior figures at the NotW have given them tacit approval to run with the fake photographs and largely fictitious copy.

Grayson is sacked and Johnson only just hangs onto his job. Reflecting on this incident, Johnson says that the phone-hacking scandal seemed inevitable. The News of the World was a “Spaghetti Junction of cover-ups, calculated risks, half-truths and lies” (p.208).

The writing in Hack is quick-paced, just as you would expect from a seasoned redtop reporter, but the copy is marred by too many typos. It is an indication that this book was rushed out quickly to cash in on interest in the phone-hacking scandal.

While much of the action in Hack takes place in the decade before the hacking saga killed the NotW, many of the characters are familiar.

Names are named and the dirty linen is well and truly given a public laundering. Some of the anecdotes are self-serving and Johnson certainly does his best to rehabilitate his own reputation; but the reader is left in no doubt that the sick culture at News of the World was deeply entrenched and encouraged from the very top of the editorial chain.

There is a moral tail in this sleazy tale of lies, deception and dubious journalistic practice and it is a powerful lesson for young journalists. Johnson discovers philosophy and credits it with saving his life.

The bottom line in Hack is that years of unethical behavior will take its toll. Johnson was a drug addict – using and abusing cocaine – he was a serial liar and addicted to the fame his dirty tricks brought him. Eventually he becomes very ill and suffers a heavy dose of post-traumatic stress. Johnson became one of the living dead in the world of journalism after years of “destroying peoples’ lives for large amounts of money”. He finally realized that News of the World was not about news, it was in the “revenge business” and retailing “all manner of human misery” was the paper’ stock-in-trade (p.292). For years Johnson had been a large part of its success, now he was having regrets.

As he moved on from daily journalism and out of the orbit of the NotW, Johnson began to realize the ‘madness was never far away’.

Johnson believes that reading philosophy gave him insights and the moral courage to own up to his self-delusion, it provided a way to overcome his mental illness. The take-away message for Johnson and the point that makes Hack ultimately a story of value is “How important it was to tell the truth.”

“At all times. Speak plainly and in a straight-forward manner. Regardless of whether it was in your own self-interest or not.” (p.293)

We might, or might not, get the same benefits from reading the literature of the Stoics that Johnson claims for himself, but his simple mantra of truth and plain speaking ultimately saved him from the “madness of being a hack” (p.294).

For anyone contemplating a life in journalism Hack provides a sobering tale that ultimately makes the unlikely connection between philosophy and the British tabloids in a way that reinforces the daily importance of ethics in journalism.

One Response to From hack to Hell and back again

  1. Nice post EM, and I hope you actually read the book and not doing a Samantha Maiden, Sideshow job on us.

    [EM responds: Nah, I read the book, it's actually worth it, cheers]

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