These days, I accept reluctantly, Claud Cockburn is primarily known for his time as a sub-editor at The Times, when he won an internal competition for the most boring headline of the year. (It was, you will recall, “Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead.”)
For me, he was the communist toff who edited a magazine called The Week, the premise of which was that rumour and gossip were as important as fact, because the rumour itself had been started with a purpose; and the purpose was significant.
One man who is the subject of some particularly heinous rumour-mongering at the moment is film star Hugh Grant. At age 51, he says, “it was time he delivered his own lines”. And he has done so, with some effect at the Leveson enquiry, as he argues eloquently the case against the tabloids and their determination to create and circulate spurious rumours.
I have not always delivered my own lines. During forty years in advertising, I have mostly written what I was told to. I have, however, met - and worked with and for - a great many people whom I still number as friends. Of course, I have also worked for people to whom I never wish to speak again. And, in the main, I haven't.
Sometimes this has cost me. Back in the 80s, I lost my biggest advertising agency client, and fell out with my long established art director, when I refused to work on the Westminster City Council account, then micro-managed and directed by the appalling Dame Shirley Porter, who subsequently appeared in court for a number of crimes against democracy. But not before the agency had been the beneficiary of Porter’s largesse.
The MD of the agency had argued that my political views made me the perfect writer for the job. I disagreed and could not ever have accepted the Porter shilling. I doubt whether I would have lasted beyond the first ad and would have been ashamed had I done so.
Like Hugh Grant, I am enjoying delivering my own lines. I have spent too long writing what I was paid to write. The writing of this blog (and also the novel which many of you have awaited for a decade or more) is liberating.
Grant’s current campaign, of course, is against the Murdoch press, which has made its founder’s fortune on printing ugly rumours. (I suspect most readers of Not Dark Yet will recognise the phrase and associate it immediately with Blair and the Dead.) Grant and many other good people have been the target of this scurrilous garbage, which consists of people sitting in bars and creating rumours in the presence of a reporter. Nor are these episodes restricted to high profile stars such as Grant.
We know how Grant is feeling. We understand his anger and his frustration, because we know that these episodes are not uncommon in ordinary life: in his case, they are writ large, on front pages in 72 point; for the rest of us, it is in 10 point, but no less hurtful, no less inaccurate.
Claud Cockburn was right: the rumour itself is only one part of the story. What matters is who started it. And why.
Today’s listening: Positively Fourth Street, Idiot Wind andThe Wicked Messenger.