News of the World: So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish and Chips


A trip to the Chippie on my Council estate in Barrow in Furness in the late 1960s had  several advantages for teenage boys. We got some chips. We usually got to hang out with our mates, and even sometimes chat to some girls.

But, whisper it, you also had the chance that your chips would come wrapped in some sheets from the News of the World. And if you were really lucky, they’d be the right pages.

As a hormone fuelled teenager access to anything to stimulate our already over-stimulated sexual imaginations was hard to come by. There was no ‘top shelf’ in the newsagents, no internet. The News of the World, or ‘News of the Screws’ as it later became known, was one source of titillating sexual stories.

I should say I had an advantage over most of my mates – I had a six evening and seven mornings a week newspaper round. My Mum was a single parent with three kids and if I wanted Levi’s I had to go out and earn the money for them.

But on the 7th day, I rested. Sunday mornings meant no rush to get finished in time for school, or to go and meet my mates for Saturday fun. I had another, guilty, Sunday morning mission: reading the News of the World. I would meander round my route, stopping in secluded spots to read the NoW, taking about three times as long as usual to get around.

There weren’t many copies of the NoW. It might have been the biggest selling Sunday, but in Labour dominated Barrow (17,500 then worked in the yards) the Labour-supporting Mirror was the main Sunday choice.

The stories I was interested in were not political but salacious. But it was in many ways a more innocent age. The details of sexual antics that appeared in the NoW then were almost entirely taken from Court reports of divorce proceedings and the odd ‘domestic’ murder or assault case. Court Reporters back then sat through hours of boring evidence waiting for the good bits. How the world changed.

I stopped reading the NoW after I left home and started work (at 16) in 1969 – as I became political in the early 1970s The Sunday Times was my reading, with their legendary Insight Team and Harold Evans at the helm.

But I’ve seen enough NoW front covers over the years to see the pattern of change. From Court-based reporting of sexual misdemeanours, NoW moved on to ‘kiss and tell’ stories, usually involving large payments to sources.

The other staple story line – about crime – also always involved some low-level corruption, but in this case of police officers. The odd ‘little earner’ lubricated the flow of information from ‘police sources’ to the NoW and other red-top papers.

And as the age of celebrity blossomed these methods developed into a huge industry. In the desperate escalating war for circulation, more and more invasive methods were used to get at the juicy stories, and larger and larger payments flowed out of NoW to ‘kiss and tell’ sources, private investigators and police.

The methods that have now been so shockingly exposed started life in the world of celebrity, sex and crime but once they had been tried and tested there it was clearly possible they would spill over into other fields, and a slippery slope to hacking Milly Dowler’s phone was under way.

The Murdoch Empire has clearly been a baleful influence in this slip into criminality, bribery and corrupt practice, but they aren’t the only ones even if they are almost certainly the worst.

I do not want to see Press regulation by the state or state-imposed censorship. But some way has to be found to stop the sort of disgusting nonsense that led to hacking to phones of victims and their families. And some way has to be found to reduce the ability of any one media organisation to wield undue influence over the political institutions of our country.

As for the News of the World, so long then, and thanks for all the fish and chips.

 

 

 

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government. Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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