My News of the World shame


News of the WorldAs a teenager in 1950s Britain I remember thinking that Catholic clergy must be a pure and undefiled lot, whereas our mob (Church of England) were hopelessly embroiled in scandals about runaway curates, loose canons (literally), and what my father impolitely summarised as 'shirt lifting vicars'.

And the source of this information? That doughty journal, the News of the World, banned by my boarding school headmaster, thus ensuring that a handful of copies sneaked from a friendly newsagent circulated like gold dust.

Not that we knew whether or not those of the Roman obedience really were as good as they seemed. We knew their priests were not allowed to marry and assumed the rest. The News of the World had very little to say about the still largely ghettoised Catholic Church and its members, but a lot to say about the frailties of us Protestants.

I was 15 when my father joined the demand for a ban on the newspaper. In his case because of an exposé involving a peer of the realm and soldiers in my father's wartime Guards regiment. A quip about 'fairies at the bottom of our guardsmen' was the last straw.

For almost all its 168 years of existence the News of the World was an unrepentant scandal ship, but — a point misses by some Australian commentators — changes have occurred, which appear to reflect the manners and mores of the times.

For instance, the 1950s, in which I grew up, and the years immediately prior to the Rupert Murdoch takeover in 1968 show the paper in what I would call 'British hypocritical mode'.

A typical example might be: Staff reporter and photographer enter a high class (illegal) brothel and get snatch story and pix with the Madame and clients as they leave hurriedly. When the story is being prepared, subeditors take care to add a paragraph reading something like: 'An indecent offer was made to our reporter who said, "I am John Smith from the News of the World" and left.'

In those days News of the World reporters spent a lot of time 'leaving'.

Stories like this make good copy with sex oozing from every paragraph. But there has to be an impression of community mindedness.

Executives on the paper possibly believed their own rhetoric. When it appeared the paper would be sold to Murdoch, the then editor, clearly sensing the danger to his own position, uttered the oft quoted phrase: 'The News of the World is as English as roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding. It should not be sold to a foreigner.'

All of which prompted a columnist (of European Jewish extraction) on another paper to respond: 'Yes, indeed, the News of the World is as English as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Which explains its fondness for stories beginning 'An incident in a railway carriage ...'

I'm ashamed to admit it but I was once myself seduced into being published in the News of the World. I was then a young journalist working on a local paper in the south of England. My 'patch', the area to which I was assigned, included Hampton Court Palace and two adjoining royal parks.

As a matter of routine I was required to pay weekly calls on the nearest police station, where the duty sergeant would show me the 'incident register' and elaborate on any parts of it.

In those pre-permissive days young couples, unable to 'snog' (or worse) in the lounge room (where their parents were probably watching the new fangled TV) would be forced to do their courting outside, usually at dusk, but sometimes in bright sunshine, using the long grass areas as cover.

My contact said he had cautioned several couples about such behaviour. Moreover, he thought the practice was becoming commonplace, attracting an army of 'perves', whose idea of an evening's fun was to act like bird watchers, binoculars in hand, crawling through the undergrowth to register a 'find'.

The folk engaged in this pursuit came to know one another quite well, shared information with rivals, brought sandwiches and flasks of coffee for afters, and conducted the operation like a junior military.

After hearing this amazing intelligence from my friendly police source, I discovered (not to my surprise) that the Surrey Comet would have none of it.

On impulse I telephoned the News of the World and was put through to an individual with a Cockney accent and a manner straight out of a police sitcom. 'Ooh! Bloody marvelous, mate. That's just for us. Catch them at it, if you can. We'll send a couple of our blokes and a photographer.'

When the day came I did my best to oblige, but the weather wasn't very good and I didn't find any action. There was further confusion when my police contact turned up with two colleagues and thought the people from the News of the World were the missing 'performers'.

None of this worried me, now decidedly wracked with guilt. Things improved a bit when a couple of weeks later I received a cheque for 50 pounds sterling. A tidy sum of money in those days, equivalent to nearly three weeks pay in my day job.

Alan GillAlan Gill was for many years the religion writer for the Sydney Morning Herald

Topic tags: Alan Gill, News of the World, Nescorp, Rupert Murdoch, phone hacking scandal



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Existing comments

Thank you Alan Gill for this revealing and amusing story of growing up with News of the World,and briefly working for it. I remember you well as religion editor of SMH.
Rodney Wetherell | 13 July 2011

Oh the memories! The News of the World was such a NAUGHTY buy - and your article so accurately recalls for me the pursed lipped, raised eyebrowed, wagging fingered editorial stance! The readers would NEVER behave so disgracefully!
Helena | 13 July 2011

I grew up in the UK in the late 1940s.
As far as my parents were concerned The News of the World was The Sewer of the Underworld.

Very few catholics, indeed very few christians, seem to have bought it. However it was the most popular reading material in Gentlemen's Barbershops. Most of us teenagers "read" it for the pictures of girls in bathing suits. The men would read out the scandalous stories as if they were burlesque entertainment, usually prefaced with the expression: "You're not going to believe this...." None of us really did believe them.

What seems to have happened over time is that the competition of TV in the news arena and the increased sophistication of technology made rogue freelance reporters (like Alan Gill old hat. TNOW had a tiger by the tail which has ended up breaking free and devouring its cruel tormentor.
Uncle Pat | 13 July 2011

I love getting older and having survived so many embarrassing or life-learning episodes you get tell the tale safely from a distance.

Memories; in the early 70's, as a primary school age kid, spreading the News Of the World out on the floor whilst Nan cooked Sunday dinner.
I couldn't believe what I was reading..yes those naughty vicars caught in orgies with black magic witch.
It was fun for a while, but then got boring, but my Nan and Grandad always bought it!
Julie | 13 July 2011

As a child in the fifties, I remember my father bringing home the News of the World in his workbag. I was pleased to find an alternative to the Daily Mirror, and delved in. Unfortunately, my mother responded rather negatively to my artless question about the meaning of the sentence "After he read the gas meter, he had relations with Mrs Brown on the kitchen table". My father was forbidden ever again to bring home 'that filth'and Mum never did tell me what relations were on the kitchen table.
Joan Seymour | 21 July 2011


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