As Lord Leveson gently ushers the tabloid press over a cliff, is there any other industry where heads would not have rolled ages ago over scandals as serious as those of the McCanns and/or Christopher Jefferies? I doubt it. But popular newspapers believe they are different and, in a way, they are.
Those at the top are protected by the Cult of the Super Editor.
The accountability they demand from everyone else does not apply to them. Even now they are looking in the mirror and failing to see it is crack’d.
It’s not just money and the chance to bully politicians that makes being a tabloid editor attractive. It’s the worship.
When they get the job, they usually bring in a couple of old mates to ensure their executive suite is more of a court. They laud it over their minions at conference and in the newsroom, with lots of swearing, sarcasm and put-downs. Their favourite word is ‘yes!’ and their favourite phrase is ‘yes, yes, yes!’
This doesn’t mean that some of them are not extremely good at the job. They are. But they engender another fake faith, that of indispensibility.
They sit atop a pyramid of power which tempts them towards tyranny. They live in an hermetically-sealed world, claiming special interpretive powers towards ‘their public’, a cross between magic, divination and mass pschology, thankfully reinforced with data from marketing. They are feared and untouchable, shielded from the nagging and daily criticisms that make the rest of us human. Everyone believes their present and future careers rest upon the talent and whims of this one individual and his immediate cronies, thereby encouraging bouts of narcissism, megalomania and Acquired Hubris Syndrome. It is not healthy although it can be stimulating, entertaining and offers great material for jokes and comedy.
‘He (rarely a she) is so brilliant,’ their staff say. ‘He’s a genius. He’s God.’
And soon this sense of indispensability permeates the whole structure meaning that, even when faced with catastrophe, people never lift their eyes high enough to see that their personal god may have feet of clay and should be held to account like anyone else and, if necessary, be offered the final tribute of a P45.
Editors ought to heed the words of Clemenceau after the First World War: ‘The graveyards are full of indispensible men.’
Life went on, even after the deaths of millions. The newspapers would go on, I assure you, without their Super Editors.
As the Leveson evidence unfolds, piling horror on top of horror as grimly as war dead, I wonder whether Fleet Street's own fieldmarshalls should have interpreted their responsibility more gravely after serious errors regarding the McCanns and/or the Bristol schoolteacher Christopher Jefferies, and other scandals which now put them in the crosshairs of the judge's machine guns.
Perhaps they should have said: ‘The buck stops here...’ and nobly fallen on their swords, as did Lady Buscombe at the Press Complaints Commission, even if her gesture has proved entirely futile.
Would that have had an effect?
Yes, I think the tone of Leveson would now be different. The tabloid press would have megaphoned a message, that it was truly remorseful and facing up to its delinquency in its widest aspects. Instead it is in standing in the dock. It didn’t have many friends to start with. Now it is friendless and becoming hated.
As the judge torments the beasts of Fleet Street with a sharp stick, the creatures are roaring through spit-flecked lips at the turning of the tables. The hunters have become the prey. Normally they set the news agenda. This time it is being set for them, although I’m unsure they really get it yet. Maybe hubris has invited myopia. Fleet Street has become Jurassic Park and the dinosaurs are half-blind. The T-Rex comes up close to Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan but just sniffs. It no longer dare bite.
The self-same editors remain in power and are asking the rest of us, other journalists, to share their guilt, their shame and their humiliation. Thanks, boys!
There will be many more dramatic twists to this narrative and the heads that didn’t roll then may yet roll in future, perhaps much sooner than they think.
It is time to challenge this Cult of the Super Editor. Their standards should be regularly reviewed by an external regulatory body, and subject to both praise and criticism.
It might even be worth considering whether, in some cases, they should be limited to a fixed term of office so that their dominance does not become part of the infrastructure.
The press has to accept that it can no longer behave as if it is immune to the Laws of Nature. It needs to comply with rules of business behaviour, just like everyone else. Fewer tinpot gods, more fallen idols.
Oh, and let’s be candid here. The Cult of the Super Editor is also a bed-blocker. Moving them along, parking them on the board, would allow younger staff to get off their scuffed knees and reach for the glitterball of destiny.