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My News of the World shame

  • 13 July 2011

As 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