"Contempt of Court", by H.M. Bateman, 1916
Readers had to stare hard at the front page of The Times of 7 May 1966 to learn that the most gruesome murder trial of the decade was over. The lead story was a less-than-gripping piece about Roy Jenkins, the then Home Secretary, visiting the US to discover what lessons, if any, he could learn about law enforcement. The second lead was a long account of one small aspect of HM Government's interminable difficulties with the white settler revolt in Rhodesia. Squeezed between them, and filling about half of one column of a seven-column broadsheet was the news that Mr Justice Fenton Atkinson had given life sentences to Myra Hindley and Ian Brady for the murders of three children on the moors north of Manchester. The Times gave no details of the sadism involved. So disdainful was the editor of sensational journalism that he gave equal space and prominence to a speculative report that the Irish government's ban on the movement of horses might hit the English racing season.
The popular press was more forthcoming, as you might expect. In the frantic search for a scoop, editors hired helicopters to follow the police investigation and bought up the stories of witnesses. But the reporting was restrained, almost genteel. The police had found a suitcase Hindley and Brady had hidden in a left-luggage locker, with pornographic pictures of Lesley Ann Downey and a tape of her pleading for her life. No one who heard it forgot it, but the News of the World confined itself to saying, "There were 16 minutes of tape with a child — her mother has said it was Lesley Ann's voice — screaming and whimpering and crying ‘Please God, help me...please, please.' And there was a woman's voice — Myra Hindley's say police who have heard her at interviews — saying ‘Shut up or I will forget myself and hit you one.' Throughout these 16 minutes there was not another sound in the court, not a cough, not a whisper." Beyond that description, there was no other attempt to intrude on the girl's last moments. It never occurred to the paper to run the contents of the tape in full.
Reading the old clippings, I felt aching nostalgia for the lost age of popular literacy when the News of the World could fit almost as many words on to a page as The Times and expect its working-class audience to appreciate fine writing. Everyone at some point must feel an equal regret for the loss of British reticence and the coarsening of public life. The foul-mouthed celebrities on the television, the mob-raising screams of talk radio, the emotionally incontinent blabbermouths who reveal their secrets when they have nothing worth hiding all represent the collapse of the values of the old establishment which The Times and the News of the World held to in their different ways.
The compensation for the decline in civility is meant to be the decline of deference. Investigative journalism barely existed in the 1960s. The colleagues of my first editor regarded him as a brave pioneer because a few years after the moors murder trial he had published an exposé of detectives beating a confession out of a suspect in Sheffield. Local newspapers had never given the police such a hard time before. The super-rich of the day could also operate without scrutiny. Business journalism consisted of factual reports on companies' results rather than investigations into whether those results were genuine. Celebrities could present entirely false pictures of themselves to their fans. The oil sheikhs, who began moving into London in the early 1970s, were pleased to discover that they could operate with almost as much impunity here as back home in their Gulf statelets.
All that is meant to have been swept away by the destruction of the old elite. We may be a more unruly country today, but we are a freer country that holds the powerful to account: a more raucous and bawdy society, certainly, but also a more honest one. The word "establishment" now has a dusty, anachronistic ring. What does it mean? What real power do the monarchy, Lords, bishops all hold?
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