Vox in the Box: Paul McCarthy

As sports editor of the News of the World, Paul McCarthy was breaking some of the biggest stories in the industry. But when he lost his job through the closure of the newspaper, he returned in a new role. Now, instead of chasing the stars, he was protecting them through his new consultancy Macca Media. So does he miss it all?

Yeah. I miss journalism to an extent. I miss the camaraderie in the press box, or on a trip. When you run your own business, you’re your own boss and you get a great deal of freedom, but you miss that interaction. I was a journalist for 28 years. When that disappears…yeah, you miss the buzz of deadlines. You miss the buzz of working with people you really like. And there’s this strange thing about sports journalism. If you’re out on the road, you can be closer friends with your rivals than with the people on your own desk. I’ve built up a huge amount of friendships with people I grew up with in journalism: Lee Clayton; Matt Dickinson; Ollie Holt, people like that. You lose a little bit of that when you take on a desk job, as I did at the News of the World, but there you have a team and you keep the interaction. Now, looking in from outside, still having close connections with journalism, yeah, you do sometimes feel isolated.

One of the many aspects of Macca Media is media training, teaching those in the spotlight how to avoid traps that a journalist might set for them. So these friends in the press…are they still your friends?

Yeah, very much! I don’t think I’m making their lives harder. You’ve got to be savvy when you deal with journalists, you have to be careful in this day and age. I think things have changed. People of my age were still able to socialise with players and get to know them on a personal level. It used to be that your contacts book was filled with the numbers of players and managers. Unfortunately, and this is no reflection on the journalists, it’s a reflection of how the game has gone, now it’s agents’ numbers. I’m not saying that’s wrong. You utilise whatever contacts you can get. But it is a shame that there’s only a limited access to the players. They’re protected. I’ve been part of that protection and I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. It’s just a part of life.

Was that why you went into PR?

Ha ha! No, I was the sports editor of the News of the World and it was the greatest job that I’ve ever had. There was not, at the time I left, much call for a redundant sports editor to go and step into someone else’s shoes. It doesn’t happen. You protect your position as sports editor with your life. It’s a fantastic role and I loved it immensely.

Were you angry about the circumstances in which you lost that role?

No, not really. I wasn’t angry. There’s no point. I sulked though.

It wasn’t anyone on the sports desk who was hacking?

It wasn’t anyone at the paper. I joined in August 2007 and that coincided with Colin Myler replacing Andy Coulson. I never worked with Andy. I think everybody will say that from 2007 on, it was a changed environment. Allegations of phone hacking weren’t there after 2007, I think that’s been established as a matter of fact.

So, was I angry? I sulked. And there was no job waiting for me to walk into. So when the paper closed, I set up Macca Media. My wife and I, we went away at New Year, somewhere you couldn’t get a mobile phone reception and you couldn’t get emails. And my wife turned to me and said, ‘Are you going to sulk for the rest of your life that the paper closed or are you going to put all your energies into making this business the very best that it can be?’

And she was right, there’s no point sulking. You get on with your life. You have to back yourself. I had a lot of help, I had a lot of contacts and I was fortunate that immediately a couple of things came along that kept me in the spotlight for what I was doing.

One of those things was representing Kia Joorabchian, a hate figure for the press at the time. Was that strange?

No, it wasn’t. Kia wasn’t always everyone’s cup of tea. He was always very good to me when I was at the News of the World. We worked very closely in setting up interviews with his players. I have to say that without his friendship and trust and loyalty, it would have been a difficult to start a new business. But it was funny, I signed a contract with him on Sep 1, 2011. Three weeks later, Carlos Tevez, his key client, decided that he wasn’t going to continue warming up for Roberto Mancini. And I use those words advisedly, because that is absolutely the core of everything.

Was it difficult to represent Joorabchian and Tevez at that time?

No, it wasn’t actually that difficult.  Roberto Mancini went mad and said Tevez should be sacked because he refused to play. And yet there were 17 people on that City bench and not one of them said that they heard Carlos say he refused to play. Mancini said that after the game and I think he may have just painted himself into a corner because, when push came to shove, that position wasn’t backed up. I’m not saying Carlos was right, by any stretch of the imagination, but Carlos said that he wan’t going to continue warming up, he felt he was warmed up enough and said that he wanted play. Mancini moved the goal posts a little bit. I think it caused a lot of problems for everybody involved.

What was it like for them both? They were under fire from all angles.

I told Kia that for a month or so, he was going to get a battering. And while you could put out statements, you had to accept that you were going to get battered. Understandably so. If I’d been the News of the World sports editor, I’d have been doing exactly the same thing. But what you had to rely on was that, in the cold light of day, Carlos had not refused to play. And that was the one thing you had to hold onto in the face of a media firestorm. I kept telling people that in the media, that was the message that kept coming out.

Did you have any conflict with former colleagues because of it?

Not really. They were on the phone to me over it, obviously. They may not agree with your position, but why should they? They don’t have to. You would just try to tell them that this was a story with two sides. And that’s all you can do sometimes. You just have to say, ultimately both sides will come out.

Did you get a buzz out of that saga that replaced what you’d lost at the News of the World?

No. It’s not the same buzz as being in journalism. It was good fun, it was stressful, but it was a different kind of buzz.

Did you notice a similar change when you moved from being a journalist to running the News of the World sports desk?

It was a massive difference. It frightened the life out of me. When I was first approached, I was chief sports columnist at The People. You’re responsible for yourself. You write your column, do the match, do a feature, do an interview. I guess you become quite selfish, in as much as you’re interested in what you’re doing and how big your show’s going be in the paper. And then to cross over and be completely responsible for 40 or more pages every week, many of which change at the last minute…I remember walking through the door on the first Saturday and everyone was sat at their terminals, all the subs, the back bench, the middle bench, all sat there. And it frightened the living daylights out of me. People are turning around and looking at you, and they’re thinking: How good is he? Is he any good? And it’s a test. It’s a different skill set. But I was very fortunate there, I worked with some of the best people in the business by a country mile.

On the reporting side, I had Andy Dunn. He’s absolutely the best live match reporter that I’ve ever seen or worked with. Neil Ashton is a great story getter. I worked with him at The People and I was very keen to get him. But behind that, some of the production people I worked with were incredible. They don’t get their names in lights, but they were phenomenal and made my life so much easier. Rob Bowden, my number two. I trusted him with my life and I trusted his judgement on everything. Tim Dykes, Nick Fox, Phil Bryant, Phil Chaplin, they were  some of the best operators I’ve ever known.

Last week, Brian Glanville told us that he thought football reporting was as good as it’s ever been. Do you agree?

Yes. Everybody tells me that newspaper journalism is dying and that it’ll be taken over by online bloggers. I’ve got a great deal of time for good bloggers, they can offer a different perspective, but the habits and techniques that are bred in newspaper journalism are more important than ever.

Newspaper journalists break all the big stories. Whether they break them online or in print, they break them. I didn’t see any bloggers telling me that Fergie had retired. Newspaper journalists did. When Moyes was sacked, who broke the story? Newspaper journalists.

You don’t become a very good newspaper journalist by accident, and I’ve worked with and against some of the best. You have to work and work and work. Student journalists sometimes ask me how you get a story. Well, they don’t often come accidentally. By and large it’s because you work contacts and people trust you.

I got to know a lot of guys on the Manchester beat, people like Neil Custis, James Ducker, Ian Ladyman, Mark Ogden, guys like that, who are fantastic at what they do. They have to cover two of the biggest clubs in the country, and they get the stories. They got Fergie, they got Moyes. They are consummate operators and I have a huge amount of time for them.

In a Q&A with the Football Writers’ Association, you said, “Contacts are the be-all and end-all of a good journalistic career. You can write like a dream, but if you don’t know what’s going on or can’t speak to the people who matter, you are knackered. Without good contacts you’re just a pointless keyboard warrior filling up space.”

You’ve got to go out and and meet people. There is a difference between a writer and a reporter. You can be a writer, you can sit and spin beautiful lines. But unless you’ve been out, met people, fought for interviews, fought to get a tale, I don’t think that your views carry the same kind of validity.

Look at Martin Samuel. He fought tooth and nail to work his way up at The Sun, he was given a wider role, to cover all sports. But you put him in a match situation and he can still do a great match report. Same as Paul Hayward, same as Matt Dickinson, same as Ollie Holt. They’re great writers, but very good reporters as well. I think there is a younger breed of writer who has never had to be a reporter and I think that’s a weakness. It’s a skill, you’ve got to have a feeling for it.

The two best story getters I’ve ever seen were back in the days of the circulation wars between The Mirror and The Sun in the 1980s. Harry Harris for the Mirror, Brian Woolnough for the Sun. Every day, they were fighting to get the best exclusive. Their sports editors set them against each other.

Harry is a completely different character to Brian. Brian was a huge, larger than life figure, incredibly generous with his time, a really good friend. I miss him dearly. Harry was different, he was a telephone operator, but man alive, his contacts book was incredible. He could get hold of people that you couldn’t imagine would ever come to the phone. They were both very different, but they were both story getters.

What was your own favourite story from your time at the News of the World?

Ashley Cole and the air rifle. I got a call on the Sunday, the worst time in the world to get a story when you work on a Sunday paper because you’ve got a week to try and protect it. So the first thing I did was call my editor. I said, “Ashley Cole’s shot someone with an air rifle.” He said, “Oh, do fuck off!”

I told him it was true, but neither of us believed that it would stay secret for a week and we agreed just to work on the follow up. But it didn’t come out on the Monday and it didn’t come out on the Tuesday. By Wednesday, we were getting a bit excited, but we still thought that someone else would get it. At this time, Chelsea were leaking like a sieve. But suddenly it’s Friday and it’s still not come out. All week, we’re working quietly, trying to stand it up, anxious not to alert Chelsea, who could kill the whole thing by making a statement about it or getting Ashley to do a mea culpa. But by Saturday, still nothing. It’s the longest I have ever known a story like that stay secret. So I called up Steve Atkins, Chelsea’s head of communications. He just said, “I’ve been waiting for someone to call.” It was on the front page the next day and that was the sort of story that made people spit their coffee out.

Do you feel that some News of the World stories have been tarnished in retrospect by the fall of Mazher Mahmood, aka ’the Fake Sheikh’?

I think there was a pressure on him to come up with stories, we’ve seen quite recently that he has been discredited. But I worked closely with him on the Pakistani spot-fixing story. I don’t know about any of the other stories he worked on, I was never involved in them, but the scrupulous attention to detail on that story was such that it allowed us to scoop the world.

Do you have any advice for young journalists?

There’s a saying in sport that you should never consider yourself completely proficient until you’ve practised something for 10,000 hours. Now I’m not saying that you need to write for 10,000 hours, but you should certainly take every opportunity to write. Even if you’re just watching the game at home, write it up. Practise, practise, practise. But get people to read it.

Just because you write something and it goes online, it doesn’t make you a journalist. Nothing could be further from the truth. You need someone to say that your intro is two pars from the end and it should be at the top. You need someone to tell you to move things around or that your grammar isn’t right. You have to have someone tell you how bad you are if you’re going to become good.

You have to immerse yourself in it. I don’t think sitting at a desk and writing off the top of your head works. If you can write well and turn a phrase, that’s a start. But it’s only a start. You’ve got to go out and show that you can mingle in the football world, that you can meet people, that you can have your opinions formed by conversations and discourse with people at the heart of the game.

Anybody can sit down and have an opinion. But if you’ve not spoken to anyone, if you’ve not made contact with anyone, if you’ve not found someone closer to the story than you, then really it’s just top of the head bollocks.

Paul McCarthy is managing director of Macca Media Limited

Paul McCarthy is also the Executive Secretary of the Football Writers’ Association. He can be found on Twitter (@paulmccarthy66)

Vox in the Box: Paul McCarthy
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