There have been many images of the 2011 UK phone hacking scandal that have entered the public consciousness, and I am certain that there will be many more to come as the Pandora’s Box of revelations linking illegal journalistic practice, police corruption and the incestuous manage-a-tois of politicians, senior police and media executives spreads like a chemical weapon over the twitching form of the British Establishment. For me however, with my life-long distaste for the tabloid media in general, and the British variant of it above all, the images that persist are those of former employees of the News of the Screws cast themselves, for once, into the centre of a media scrum desperately batting off shouted questions as they make a dash for the temporary safety of a waiting car. Whether it be Rebekah Brooks denying knowing anything about anything to the Select Committee or Paul McMullan facing the eloquent fury of Steve Coogan on BBC Newsnight.
I’ve searched my knowledge base of historical references for an appropriate metaphor and, after much deliberation, have come up with the perfect one ….. Lavrentiy Beria. For those of you who don’t know him he was the most feared of Stalin’s henchmen, head of the NKVD during the second world war, responsible for sending countless thousands to their deaths or to the gulags on the flimsiest of grounds and architect of the Katyn massacre. Stalin died in 1953 and, in one of the great ironies of history, Beria became Deputy First Premier and reacted against the excesses of the same Bolshevism that he had so fanatically defended, attempting to introduce an early form of Perestroika, arguing for de-Bolshevisation, economic liberalisation and normalisation of relations with the USA. But he had simply made too many enemies, most of them relatives of his victims, and he was publicly denounced by the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; then arrested, tried on a trumped up charge of being a British spy, found guilty and shot on the same day – his last moments spent on his knees pathetically begging for mercy. In a final posthumous humiliation he was further denounced in the official Soviet press as a rapist and sexual pervert – something he had done to many of his victims – the only difference being that in Beria’s case it happened to be true.
Now fast forward to a pub in London in the late 1980’s and an author of gothic horror fiction; not the ersatz junk of Dennis Wheatly, but an altogether more thoughtful and well researched variety, by a Cambridge scholar, and a teacher at a prestigious public school; he was also an acknowledged authority on the life and works of Aleister Crowley. In addition he had published works of nonfiction on military history as well as a History of World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. He was approached by a rather charming and affable young man (not the one depicted above – I said charming and affable) who professed an interest in the esoteric. Being an open – hearted and generous man, the scholar sat down for a drink with him and did his best to answer his questions. There was just one problem – the young man was not what he seemed; in reality he was a reporter for the News of the Screws and was on the lookout for an instant scandalous story. The scholar told him nothing of any great import, in fact nothing at all that you couldn’t have read in any of his books. If only he had known how that innocent-seeming conversation would turn out.
Some weeks later an article appeared in that toilet roll masquerading as a newspaper that filled him with real horror. The gentle scholar, the worst of whom could be said was that he was a harmless eccentric, was now depicted as a “An Evil Black Magic Wizard”. “Have you ever drunk human blood ?” the young man had asked “Of course not !” the scholar replied, before adding jokingly “but I tried Mead in Scandinavia, that sometimes has blood in it”. This appeared in the article as “He gorges himself on human blood !!!”. “Do you take drugs ?” he asked “No, but I once tried cannabis at Cambridge and wondered what all the fuss was about” – this was trumpeted in the article as “I advocate the use of drugs !!!”. The result was predictable enough; the scholar was dismissed from his post and was never able to teach again. He lost everything – his home, his career his marriage. Naturally enough, he sued and won easily – settled out of court for £90,000 – but that took two years and came far too late to put the right the damage that had been done.
Yet this story has, to coin a phrase used by Coogan in that excellent Newsnight broadcast, “one small victory for decency”. The journo died in a car crash seven years later. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer man”, as the scholar put it to me shortly after he received the news as we shared a drink at his flat; a pleasing metaphor for the fate most recently suffered by the publication itself. And thus let me add an addition to the many “laws” that the press have proposed (Megan’s law, Sarah’s Law etc). I call it “Gerald’s Law” of Journalism and it should be carved on the tombstone of the News of the Screws – it’s quite simply this – “Never Fuck With An Occultist”.
Which finally brings me to the title of this piece and to beg your indulgence for the venom that I have put into these words with an image from popular culture – The Wire, Season 5, final episode. With Stringer, Omar and Proposition Joe dead, Avon in gaol and Marlo neutralised, the remaining gangsters are gathered to do a deal ….. “That was for Joe”
Copyright ©Savereo John 2011