Tabloid hack: Stoicism saved me from moral turmoil!!

Welcome to all the new subscribers to the newsletter - lots of you signed up from Australia, following the interview I did on ABC on Monday. Usually this newsletter has links to philosophy and psychology stories from the web, but today I came across one great story which I’d like to share with you all.

It’s an interview I did this morning with Graham Johnson, who was a senior tabloid journalist at the News of the World and then head of undercover investigations at the Sunday Mirror. As you all know, British tabloid journalism is in a moral crisis at the moment,  thanks to the Leveson Inquiry's endless revelations of immoral, illegal and negligent behaviour by hacks, editors and newspaper owners.

Graham, who in recent weeks has spoken out publicly against the toxic culture in tabloids, gave me a vivid inside view of newsroom vice, and how he feels his life was ‘saved’ by coming across ancient Greek philosophy five years ago. He heard about my book and got in touch via Twitter.

Here’s Graham in his own words (well, my transcript of the interview):

I joined journalism in 1994, did two years on the News of the World and eight years at the Sunday Mirror. For most of that, I was investigations editor, mainly doing undercover work on things like drug dealing, gun running, prostitution. I also did a fair amount of celebrity expose work. Rebekah Brooks might say she’s proud of campaigns like Sarah’s Law, but most of the campaigns the News of the World did weren’t for the common good, they were for the good of the News of the World.

A tabloid newsroom thrives on the vices and passions of others, and it fosters them in yourself too: greed, lust, deception, anger, fear. I instinctively knew I was doing wrong things, but I didn’t care. You don’t reflect on it - you’re moving too fast and living too extremely.  I hired private detectives to get illegal data, I lied, deceived, blackmailed people, basically giving them the shakedown for information. For example, you’d get evidence of a celebrity doing cocaine and having an affair, and you tell them: 'either cooperate with us and give us a confession, or we’ll run the story anyway'. You’d see celebrities at their weakest - people would break down, some people even had nervous breakdowns. But you got de-sensitised to it. You start to think you’re all powerful and can manipulate people to do anything.

I remember one story with Steve McManaman, the England and Liverpool football player, whose mum had cancer. The News of the World were only interested in getting the story, ‘my cancer hell by Steve McManaman’. But we didn’t have the full medical records, so we needed to get Steve to admit his mother had cancer. I had to go and lean on him, in his own home, and say we’ll run this story anyway but it would  be better for him if he cooperated. He was desperately trying to convince me not to run the story. He even brought his mother in to try and show that she was fine and didn’t have cancer. It reminded me of people in a concentration camp rubbing blood into their cheeks to try and make themselves look healthy.

I also bought the video tapes of Wayne Rooney in a brothel, for £200K. I knew it could destroy his career and his engagement to Coleen, but I didn’t care. You don’t even try to justify it to yourself morally, as being in ‘the public interest’. It’s all about winning status inside the newsroom. It's like a stock exchange, with your credit constantly rising or falling. If you win a big story, you get praised by the editor and for a few days your stock is up. But if you don’t get another big story, then quickly you get shouted at and called a dickhead by the editor. It’s a bullying culture. And it’s fiercely competitive. There’s a lot of simmering resentment of each other in the newsroom.

It’s such an extreme environment, and it fosters extreme behaviour. You do whatever it takes to get the story, to get on the front-page. And people adopted extreme coping strategies to stop themselves thinking about how they’re living. A lot of tabloid hacks would do cocaine, or drink a lot, or get pleasure in extreme ways. I remember one editor sitting on the toilet smoking crack cocaine on deadline. The Priory rehab centre was full of burnt-out tabloid journalists.

By 2007, I was exhausted. I was like a soldier with a thousand-yard stare, like a hunted animal. It was almost like I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it was such an extreme environment. I went on holiday to France with my partner and four kids. I think I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I pulled a book off the shelf, called Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton, and read it in two days. After that I read his Consolations of Philosophy, then I read all the ancient philosophy I could find: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Essays, Epictetus’ Discourses.

They introduced me to the idea of the virtues - kindness, patience, justice and so on. I’d never come across them before. I don’t remember being given any ethical training as a young journalist - if I was I quickly abandoned it. But now I realised how important values were, simply for my sanity. For example, I realised the wisdom of not linking my status to the stock exchange of winning stories, because then it was linked to something out of my control and would always be volatile.

I also learnt to be more patient, not to get drawn into petty disputes. Patience in tabloid journalism is a total vice. Tabloid journalism is all about being impatient. But philosophy helped me in that very angry, competitive environment of the newsroom. So if someone started an argument, or if a company didn’t pay me on time, I don’t let myself get drawn in, I remind myself that I’ll be dead one day and it’s not worth it. I also don’t tell lies any more. I used to lie all the time. And it’s a relief, not to lie anymore, not to have to tap-dance between the raindrops and try to remember what you said to whom. I’m also more conscious of justice - if I’m working on a story and a person said to me ‘if you write that it would ruin my life’, I’ll back off.

I think more about what’s the right thing to do, and try to come to a wise decision. I might be asked to break the law, by paying a criminal for example. But that might be the right thing to do, morally. If I’m getting information from an ex-criminal, and I’m getting paid and my team are getting paid, why shouldn’t the ex-criminal get paid too.

It’s made me a better journalist than ever. I earn more than I used to, not that it’s the reason I do it. But I also pick my stories more carefully now.

So how, I asked Graham, could journalism be improved? How could we enhance the ‘moral education’ of journalists?

I was on a panel recently with Tom Watson, and I said that there needs to be more values education and moral training for trainee journalists. It needs to be drummed into you what the virtues are. And people need to be shown that the good life isn’t just virtuous, it’s good for your sanity. According to Stoicism, the good life is only down to you, but I think you also need good leaders too, like Marcus Aurelius. People take note of what’s around them and how their leaders behave. It might help also to have a compliance officer, like a moral guardian, actually within the newsroom. Or a media ethics committee within newspapers.

I think Graham would be a fantastic values teacher for the next generation of young journalists, and wish him all the best in his work. His book about his experience in tabloid journalism is called Hack, published in May by Simon & Schuster. I know other tabloid journalists who are into philosophy - some enlightened soul at The Sun keeps putting quotes from Epictetus and the Dalai Lama into the made-up interviews with the Page 3 girls!

If you enjoy this sort of real-life story of how people have been helped today by ancient philosophy, then you'll love my new book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.

Do you have an interesting story about how you got into philosophy and how it helped you? Thanks for the people who have written in so far, I’ll try and tell all your stories.

See you next week,