THERE I sat, the Great Editor (I never was that great, but the media students at the other end of our Skype connection weren’t to know that), holding forth in fine, fatherly fashion on the importance of honesty in journalism: The Only Way Is Ethics, I suggested, basking momentarily in the glow of appreciative laughter from the Kent University kids.
Then came the killer question: “Have you REALLY never allowed a story to be published knowing it to be untrue?”
Who was that shadowy lass at the back of the class? A ‘plant’ from the Commons Media Select Committee? Lord Justice Leveson in an unfamiliar blonde wig and black tights come to hound an old tabloid terror?
“I-I-I-er, that is I-I. . .No! Certainly not!” But at the same time my mind reeled, searching back through years of headlines in whose preparation I had a hand on newspapers from Newcastle to New York and New South Wales, right through to my days as editor of the Daily Mirror. Amazing how the memories come tumbling back under pressure . . .
‘HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR!’ (New York Post murder report). Sensational, yes, but also completely factual. . .
‘NUT SCREWS WASHERS AND BOLTS!’ (New York Daily News, recounting how a criminally insane prisoner escaped, raped two women in a laundrette and evaded recapture). Again a crude but factual and brilliant headline./But then the wee doubts began to creep in . . .
‘FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER!’ and ‘DAVID MELLOR MADE LOVE IN A CHELSEA STRIP’ (both in The Sun where, as night editor, I was responsible for the front page). Okay, we believed them both to be true at the time, but only because the Max Clifford said so (and he was known in the trade as ‘Max Factor’, a past master of the make-up business).
In any case, I told myself, my editor on both occasions was Kelvin MacKenzie. His was the last word. And that was when I recalled our ethical contretemps one night on the New York Post when he was managing editor and I was his deputy.
A head-on crash between two buses in Queens had killed at least 20 passengers and injured many more. We were on deadline. Kelvin’s headline – ‘20 DEAD IN BUS CRASH’ – wouldn’t fit in the desired type size (this was long before the ever-obliging computer allowed type to be squeezed). So Kelvin, flawed journalistic genius that he is, rewrote the headline: ’19 DEAD IN BUS CRASH’.
That did it; by substituting ‘20’ with the number ‘19’ the headline was thinned by half a character and made it fit. “But it’s untrue!” I protested. “No it’s not,” said Kelvin. “We’ve been told that at least 20 died so we know for certain that 19 died.”
With the seconds slipping away beyond deadline and the presses waiting to roll my mentor’s insane logic overwhelmed me. I shrugged. We published.
I still harbour doubts about the ethical outcome: we knew the headline to be true and yet it provided an incomplete, inaccurate picture.
And by that yardstick, Kelvin might easily have headlined last weekend’s controversial Australia-Scotland Rugby World Cup result ‘Australia 31 Scotland 35’ instead of the REAL score (Australia 36 Scotland 35) because “we know that Australia scored at least 31 points and that fits better than 36”.
But is it as dishonest to DEflate a story as it is to INflate one?
Me or Kelvin? You choose.