Jan. 20, 2003 | More from Don Murray
We bring you news of the future.
In London, the completely bald editor of a large newspaper has been replaced by one with flaming red hair. The outgoing editor resembles nothing so much as an egg wearing glasses. He should not, however, be confused with an ‘egghead.’ For the newspaper in question is The Sun.
The Sun isn’t just a large newspaper, it is Britain’s biggest. It is also a tabloid, some would say the tabloid, in the furiously competitive market of the country’s capital. It features blaring front pages, outrageous headlines, acres of sports and bare-breasted girls on page three.
It is the creation of Rupert Murdoch, the international media tycoon, and it is his favourite journalistic offspring. It is a paper for beer-swilling 'lads,' it sells 3.5 million copies a day, it has helped rewrite the rules of British journalism and it is feared and courted by the government of the day.
And now the future: the redhead who replaced the egghead is...a woman. She is Rebeka Wade, she is 34 and she was educated at the Sorbonne. It is a revolution; better still, it is news, and British newspapers have been writing stories about it for days.
Where to start? Well, The Sun prides itself on its chauvinistic (in both senses) reputation. Let's take classical chauvinism first. This is a newspaper that dislikes foreigners in general and the French in particular. When the French refused to import British beef at the height of the mad cow crisis The Sun responded by handing out 'froggie' buttons to readers.
When Jacques Delors, the French head of the European Commission, suggested more European integration might be a good thing, The Sun responded with a giant front page headline: "Up Yours, Delors!" And now this paper has an editor who has lived in Paris, is fluent in French and may even like those people.
The question that exercises the British papers, however, touches on the more modern definition of chauvinism. Will Rebeka rid The Sun of the unfettered breasts of the page three girls? This is a deep question, debated recently on the BBC by two women MPs. The left-leaning Labour MP denounced the page three format as exploitation. The free-market conservative MP said the exposure was good for the young women's careers. The jury is still out.
The debate itself seems to overlook the obvious: the page three girls ARE The Sun. When this crusading tabloid chose its latest battle (how to help Britons lose weight after Christmas), its solution was the Banana Diet. "Britain goes Banana Barmy" was its page one headline the day after it launched the diet. The story was on page three. "Shoppers bought MILLIONS of extra bananas yesterday as Britain went crazy over the banana diet," it announced. The story featured a page three girl clad only in bananas.
Ms. Wade seems to have recognized this. A few days after the announcement of her appointment there appeared on page three 'Rebeka of Wapping.' This semi-clothed young woman was not Ms. Wade; the title was a joke. Wapping is where the Murdoch empire prints its British papers. The joke was also a message. Ms. Wade supports the page three girls at least for now.
The key to Rebeka, the experts say, is that she is, first and foremost, a ferocious tabloid editor. She ran The News of the World, Murdoch's Sunday tabloid with a circulation of four million. She kept it at that level with headline-grabbing initiatives.
The most infamous of these was the campaign to 'name and shame' all of Britain's pedophiles. As the names were printed there were outbreaks of local hysteria. Innocent people were attacked. In one case, a gang with a shaky grasp of long words with Greek prefixes roughed up a pediatrician. The police, the legal establishment and politicians attacked the campaign. Ms. Wade made no apology.
Her other headline-grabbing initiative was a 'sting' operation. One of her reporters dressed up as an Arab sheik and solicited public relations business from the company headed by Sophie, the Duchess of Wessex and wife of Prince Edward, the Queen's third son. Sophie happily trashed members of the royal family in the secretly-recorded conversation.
Ms. Wade is also a networker. One of her social acquaintances is Cherie Blair, the wife of the British prime minister. This didn't stop Ms. Wade from apparently authorizing another sting operation, this time against Mrs. Blair. It involved a con-man who had helped Mrs. Blair buy two apartments. The police discovered the ploy. Mrs. Blair was not pleased. Ms. Wade was unrepentant.
All of this is entertaining. It's also, the experts says, important. The tabloid culture has changed the way people look at their leaders and The Sun has led the way in this. Take a recent headline: "Donkey Derry Must Go." Donkey Derry is, in fact, Britain's lord chancellor, Lord Derry Irvine, its senior justice minister and a member of the cabinet. But The Sun takes no prisoners and considers no one, and particularly not cabinet members, worthy of much respect.
The game, as played by The Sun and The News of the World, is to catch the great and famous in compromising positions, preferably with their pants down. Failing that, mock them. The result is that the great, or merely the politically powerful, are held in polite or not-so-polite contempt.
‘Gotcha!’ is The Sun’s most famous headline. It was written when the British sank an Argentine battleship, killing more than 300 men. That one-word headline has become the tabloid’s policy in peace as well as war. Now the prey are the powerful and the celebrated, and Ms. Wade is in the forefront of the hunt.
If it sells papers, she’ll continue to resort to it. In her first message to her staff she said Rupert Murdoch would call only twice: “once when we hit four million circulation and once when we hit five million.”
Expect more ‘gotchas.’
Let us leave the future now and return to the past. This is the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the great journalists of the 19th century. This was a man who produced one of the scoops of his century. In July 1878, thanks to him, The Times of London published almost the entire Berlin Treaty, 20,000 words in English and French, a top-secret document in which European leaders carved up the Balkans and Eastern Europe. And The Times published it before it was signed.
The author of this scoop was Henri Georges Stefan Adolphe Opper de Blowitz. He was The Times’ Paris correspondent, Bohemian-born, Czech-speaking, French-naturalized and not very fluent in English. In fact he wrote his articles in French; they were translated by his editors.
Thanks to a ‘mole,’ he had been providing his readers with almost verbatim accounts of the negotiations leading to the Berlin treaty. These accounts were concealed inside the lining of a top hat hung on a hatrack in the Kaiserhof Hotel. De Blowitz simply hung up his hat, picked up the other one and walked away with the secret despatches. Despite this, he didn’t like Berlin. “In Paris,” he announced, “even the fish talk; in Berlin the parrots are silent.”
De Blowitz never took notes. He relied on his exceptional memory for his quotes. Of course, even one of the greatest 19th century journalists had off-days. He was frequently accused of breaking confidences, inventing quotes or even making up whole incidents.
Today Rupert Murdoch owns The Times as well as The Sun. Henri Georges Stefan Adolphe Opper de Blowitz would probably fit very comfortably into the world of ‘Rebeka of Wapping.’