REBEKAH BROOKS has not been out of the news in the last week and her future at News International is looking shaky to say the least. For me, the recent revelations have brought back a lot of memories of my time working under Brooks and Coulson at The Sun.
Over the years I’ve written for and worked across the board on the nationals – from broadsheets like The Telegraph and The Guardian, right through to The Mirror. But nothing really has ever compared to my stint on The Sun where Brooks was my Deputy Editor and Coulson my manager, as Associate Editor – Features. I was a feature writer covering the ‘softer’ side of newspaper editorial – women’s interest, health, the Royals, celebs and entertainment.
It’s a good 12 years ago since I was on the ‘currant bun’ (The Sun) and I have to say, it was an unforgettable chapter in my own life and it certainly kick-started my career on other papers and magazines. Working for such a powerful newspaper opened doors (we were treated VERY well by PRs); it was fun (I travelled all over the show with an expenses account) and best of all, we covered the biggest and best stories every single day.
We did a brilliant breast cancer awareness campaign (with over 3 million readers, that’s a lot of informed people); the news team highlighted corruption, exposed criminals and there was space for some much loved British silliness too. I once dressed up as a druid and with a bunch of fellow hacks did a Sun dance with hundreds of Sun readers in a park. Working there was unique, fascinating, character-building and extremely rewarding at times.
Likewise, it was also stressful, highly competitive and some days, completely horrendous. The demands made of you were uncompromising. Every day, you had to deliver lots of great ideas and then the stories/interviews to follow them up – on the tightest of deadlines. You could literally write several great pieces in a day and never see any of them make the paper.
I was often pushed to my limits but that was the nature of the game. You either cut the mustard or you didn’t. For example, I once got sent to interview a couple whose daughter had been murdered in the most appalling of circumstances. It was a very high profile story. “Don’t show your face in the newsroom if you don’t get the interview,” I was told as I nervously exited the morning conference. My knees were literally knocking!
There’s a sign above the door as you enter The Sun newsroom – “Hold your head up high, you are entering Sun country”. Phew, many a time my own little head was hung low, knowing I was in for an almighty bollocking! I never did get that interview with the parents of the murdered girl; I told my editor that they weren’t in. Actually, they were in but I just knew I couldn’t exploit their grief and suffering. Another newspaper got the story.
A lot of people don’t last a week at The Sun. I am still amazed I lasted over 12 months – mainly down to sheer dogged determination. Like many there, I would find myself totally burnt out some days – not great for a girl only in her 20s. Fortunately, I didn’t find myself in The Priory or have a breakdown but I know a few who did. As you do in life, you find your feet and work out what you are best suited to and after being told my contract wasn’t being renewed, I went on to work in magazines and newspaper supplements. I was much happier and thanks to the experience of working for The Sun, my skills, experience and contacts were highly valued.
That is why, regardless of my own unsuitability to being a fully-fledged ‘nerves of steel’ true tabloid hack, I have to stand up and say I am glad to have had the opportunity to have known that world first-hand. For example, to experience The Sun newsroom machinery in full swing, especially when a big story broke was a privilege. No one ‘dropped the ball’, every angle was covered and the level of professionalism, perfectionism and efficiency – from the picture desk through to the subbing desks – was incomparable to ANY other publication I have worked at.
Fellow journalists from the broadsheets and other tabloids papers respected (and still do) the fact that, if you could work at The Sun, you could work anywhere. Not many get the chance to do so and it is certainly a unique experience.
Like the Daily Mail and The Mirror, the paper prides itself on employing the ‘cream’ of the industry. From the best and most influential political and social commentators, to the most creative, well connected and talented feature, entertainment, TV, fashion and health writers. The sports writers alone are recognised as among the very best in the world.
Many reporters are award-winning, highly educated (lots of Oxbridge grads) or simply the most fantastic authorities on their subject – be it foreign news, F1, business or even gardening. While I have worked at the more high-brow titles too, I can genuinely say many of the sharpest, most charismatic and brightest journalists tended to gravitate to the heavyweight tabloids.
Trust me, while there is loads of snobbery levelled at the tabloids (by those who would never read one anyway) the truth is that they (The Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Sun etc.) are a huge part of British life and culture. The Sun’s readership can reach 7.6 million people on a good day. Discounting the clout of such a product is naive, if not ignorant. The tabloids’ splashes (front pages) and political exclusives often set the news agenda for the rest of the media, simple as.
The hacking revelations are bad, bad news for ALL newspapers. Let’s take a reality check. All national newspapers employ a team of highly trained, experienced news reporters and investigators. It is their job to dig out the exclusive BIG stories, to expose and make accountable those who are in the public eye, and to go that extra mile to get the insider scoop everyone else wants.
The News of the World is history now because it went that step way too far. Sunday tabloids are a different animal all together from the dailies. Their purpose is to deliver the biggest and most salacious news of the week. While celebs and politicians misbehaving is one thing, exploiting an innocent family whose child has died is simply immoral.
I no doubt there is much more to come regarding Coulson, Brooks and worryingly, other newspapers and top names in the UK press. Even as I type, the cafetiere drinking readers of The Sunday Times are learning that their nice, middle-class Sunday paper is allegedly involved in some sordid reporting practices too.
The other night on BBC 5 Live I was asked, looking back on my brief stint working under both Brooks and Coulson at The Sun, what I remember most about them. It is this – the level of power and indulgence afforded to senior execs such as them at News International. They were only in their early 30s back then and yet they were the ‘untouchables’. They had the most incredible responsibility, influence and lifestyle (huge salaries and even their own chauffeur driven cars to Wapping).
Yet, neither of them had any real management skill or life experience outside of being one of Murdoch’s protégés since their early 20s. It bred a culture of hero-worshipping Murdoch robots in my opinion. Coulson and Brooks’ inner circle of super-loyal senior editorial staff at The Sun hung on to their every word. “If you were not in their clique, you were deemed a nobody,” as one of my former Sun colleagues reminded me this week.
While some were terribly in awe of Brooks and Coulson, a lot of us recognised even then that they had sold their souls to Murdoch. Now, they are paying the price.