LONDON — A canyon of smoke-filled newsrooms thundering to the beat of mighty printing presses once stood in London’s Fleet Street, dispatching an army of journalists to file copy from all corners of the world — but mostly from the nearest pub.
In its prime, Fleet Street dominated the international media, with titles like the London Times, The Express and the Daily Telegraph shifting millions of copies to an eager public in thrall to their breathless accounts of conflict and intrigue at home and abroad.
Those days finally ended this month, as Agence France-Presse, the last major news organization operating in the legendary media thoroughfare, packed up its office and relocated to less romantic, if somewhat cheaper, premises elsewhere in the city.
The departure of AFP from what English satirical magazine Private Eye witheringly refers to as “The Street of Shame,” seems to have gone unnoticed by the British print media, somewhat surprisingly given its unrelenting penchant for self-analysis.
Perhaps this oversight could be because its newspapers are busy unpicking what could prove to be one of the most shameful episodes of their long and occasionally honorable histories: Namely an alleged phone bugging scandal involving the biggest-selling title.
Reporters from the The News of the World, a showbiz gossip-led tabloid which shifts about 3 million of its once-weekly print run, are accused of hacking into the cell phones of up to 3,000 celebrities and politicians and eavesdropping on their daily lives.
While the paper’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman was jailed in 2007 for similar offenses — prompting the resignation of editor Andy Coulson — it is now alleged many more staff were complicit and at least one prominent figure was paid off to prevent further legal action.
Though all involved have denied the claims, they have doubtless caused embarrassment to Coulson’s current employer David Cameron who, as leader of the opposition Conservative Party, hopes to see himself elected as prime minister next year.
For Britons inured to the tawdry checkbook journalism tactics of their “gutter press,” this latest episode has done little halt what they see as a decline in the standards of a media still collectively referred to as “Fleet Street” despite its en masse desertion of the road.
“Nobody wants to pay for this stuff anymore,” said fashion student Stephanie Regan, 21, clutching a copy of the London Lite, a daily round up of rehashed news wire copy and showbiz tittle-tattle handed out free at subway stations in the capital.
“There’s nothing in them worth paying money for, especially as you can get it for free on the internet or in the freebies. I sometimes get The Guardian [a left-leaning broadsheet], but mostly I’ve got better thing to spend my money on.”
The latest calumny will also do little to halt plummeting sales that, as in the United States, have taken some papers to the brink of extinction — and, in one extraordinary development, led to the liberal Independent newspaper moving in with its ideological foe The Daily Mail to cut costs.
But, says author and journalist Chris Horrie — whose book "Stick It Up Your Punter" charts the behind-the-scenes burlesque of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun tabloid during the Margaret Thatcher era — today’s Fleet Street scandals are no sleazier than those of yesteryear.
“There are cycles to this, it comes and goes. The Victorian press was far more rude and offensive in many ways than modern tabloids.”
Horrie instead paints the British press as victims rather than violators, blaming the deregulation of newspaper cash cows such as sport, television listings and soft porn for stripping profits and putting the squeeze on the industry.
“Standards have gone down because of economics. Staff levels are smaller, the readership is smaller, and it is harder to make money.
Also very much the villain, said Horrie, is the taxpayer-funded British Broadcasting Corporation, which though revered overseas for its impartiality and the quality of its output, is reviled by a Fleet Street envious of its massive resources.
“The BBC puts out an ocean of news for free. News is like water and the BBC has got a huge news monopoly, flooding the country. Newspapers are left trying to con people by saying ‘we have also got this other water, but you can trust it because it’s special’.”
This desperate scrabble for readers is a far cry from the glory days of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when Fleet Street’s finest would spend more time satisfying their bacchanalian thirsts in pubs such as Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese than worrying about scoops.
And as AFP makes its exit, many fallen heroes among a press corps not known for its tolerance of foreigners will no doubt be turning in their graves in Fleet Street’s St. Bride’s church at the realization that not only have the last journalists have left — but they were French.
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