5 NOVEMBER 2012
IS PUBLISHING CORRUPT?
I’m sure the organisers won’t mind me saying so, but Ryedale Book Festival is a fairly innocuous affair. Held in the quiet market town of Malton in The Vale of York, it’s not designed to be contentious. A couple of weeks ago l went there in the company of my publisher, Stairwell Books, to promote their work to the local public and during a well-earned break, I came across something which at the time surprised me.
I had decided to take lunch at a local cafe where a well-known author was to give a talk about himself and his books. I’m not going to name the person concerned – perhaps I should and I’ll come to that later – but suffice it to say that he’s sold millions, been translated into a multitude of different languages and is now touting the first film to come about from his work. Not somebody you could readily ignore then.
He began by expressing his disgust at the publishing industry, telling us how terribly hypocritical it was, professing high standards on the one hand while seeking to make a fast buck by peddling trash on the other. Everything was done in the service of making money. Nothing new here, I thought – the cynicism of a successful man. It was when he offhandedly described what had happened at a recent industry event that my ears pricked up.
He’d been nominated for an award and as is the usual practice, picked out in a spotlight and introduced to the crowd. After the beam had moved on, one of his companions (agent/publisher/editor, not sure who) leaned across and whispered that he wasn’t going to win. When he asked why, they apparently told him it was because they couldn’t afford it. And when he mentioned the fee that was required, I’m not really surprised – it was more than I’ve ever earned in a year.
I was staggered by how casually this information was given out and how casually it was received. I looked around the cafe expecting to see a row of shocked faces and dropped jaws - but there were none. My dining companions were either too engrossed in their meal and hadn’t been listening or, as was more likely the case, they simply didn’t care. The fact is that in this modern day and age of sensationalist journalism, revelations of this kind are no longer a shock to us and we’ve come to accept them as normal.
When I was growing up, I harboured a healthy respect for what was called The Establishment. I held most senior politicians in some regard – MacMillan, Gaitskell, Butler, Whitelaw, Douglas-Home, here were men who dedicated themselves to the service of their country (although I always had doubts about Wilson). So much so that I spent some of my own life in politics inspired by their example. Scandals were rare, possibly because they were efficiently suppressed and it was easier to ‘manage’ the news. In those days, Ministers resigned because they slept with call-girls who had Russian boyfriends – serious stuff. Today they go down because they said something ‘inappropriate’ to a policeman. How things have changed!
But nowadays I find it hard to think of a politician I’d trust. Our Members of Parliament have defrauded their constituents by fiddling their expenses. In Italy, a former Prime Minister has been sent to jail for tax evasion. And in America there was always that thing about ‘pregnant chads’, never mind Nixon and Watergate.
And it’s not just politics where we’ve lost faith in those at the top of our leading institutions. The Police have a lot to answer for and the cooked-up reports about the miners and Maria Eagles’ recent revelations about the Chief Constable of Merseyside over the Hillsborough tragedy have further undermined our confidence.
Our banking system is rotten. Barclays have been fined for manipulating LIBOR and there are now questions about their trading in the energy market.
The Press have grown more and more adept at revealing these misdoings – no surprise there, they’ve been busy hacking into everyone’s phones so they themselves are equally complicit.
Even sport is not immune. I need only mention Ben Johnson (drugs), Hansie Cronje (match fixing) and Lance Armstrong (more drugs) – the list goes on.
In every walk of life we’re surrounded by lies, deceit and corruption. No wonder then, that when a well-known author suggests that publishing’s not quite right either, nobody bats an eyelid.
You may have spotted one notable omission from the examples I’ve given above – Jimmy Savile and the BBC – and I have a particular reason for leaving it until last. As much as we’ve become used to the indiscretions of our celebrities, the Jimmy Savile affair really did come as a shock to the majority of this country. Here was a man who did so much that was good in terms of charity and giving (we knighted him for goodness sake!) and yet so much that was bad in other ways.
And here’s the point. Lots of people knew about it but were afraid to speak out. The BBC, the Police, his victims – they all had reasons to name and shame but consistently failed to do so.
So, is publishing immune from corruption? Or is it just that nobody's telling us?