Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Celebrity reporting has had a corrosive influence on British journalistic standards. Whether the stories are sycophantic or invented the effect has been the same: a showbiz style of story-telling has been replicated in sports reporting, politics and business. In a lecture at the University of East London (3.4.2008) Nicholas Jones pulled back the veil to expose the hidden influences that have besmirched celebrity reporting and damaged the reputation of British journalism.

 

Thanks to the steady income derived from the mass circulations of their popular tabloid newspapers -- known in the trade as the "red tops" -- the media proprietors of Britain have some of the deepest pockets in the business. They can -- and do -- outbid rival publishers around the world when it comes to buying up sensational and often intrusive material, be it news stories, interviews, photographs or videos. Their ability to write bigger cheques than their competitors has had a dramatic effect on the standards of British journalism. We have seen the emergence of middlemen -- publicists like Max Clifford -- who can make a fortune out of people’s willingness to exploit the private lives of not just themselves but other people as well.

It tends to be called "kiss and tell" journalism as it frequently involves women selling their stories about sex affairs with footballers and the like. The exploitation of other people’s embarrassment -- even other people’s misery -- has also encouraged what has to be seen as the nasty side of citizen’s journalism, the sale of personal information, perhaps mobile phone photos taken at private occasions and other private and personal data obtained through dubious means. Such is the growth in brash and intrusive journalism -- the burgeoning bands of paparazzi photographers make the point -- that the public relations industry has retaliated by imposing ever tighter restrictions on the news media’s access to all kinds of celebrities. Through their ability to restrict access, the celebrities and their agents can make yet more money.

This tight control has encouraged blatant manipulation of the media: access to film stars, actors, authors and the like is severely limited and is often only allowed in return for free publicity. Increasingly the stars’ publicists demand copy and photo approval; television interviews are conducted by the star’s own film crew. Yes the journalist can ask questions -- usually only those agreed in advance -- but even the lighting and framing of the picture is under the control of the publicist and the aim is to create the best possible image for the celebrity concerned. So we have seen the emergence of a celebrity industry with a cast list of thousands: publicists and public relations agents, celebrity journalists and photographers who are all involved is meeting the media’s insatiable appetite for celebrity news.

The concern of journalists like myself is that the often appalling standards of celebrity reporting have had a terrible effect on the rest of the media and journalistic standards have been in free fall. That is certainly my impression when I look back at the standards which applied when I left school and started work on a local evening newspaper and left for what was then Fleet Street. The scale of change is pretty terrifying. I think we now have a generation of journalists who will happily embellish and even manufacture their own story lines and who will invent the quotes to go with their exclusives. We have showbiz journalists -- known in the trade as the "3am girls" -- who will sacrifice journalistic principles just to get themselves photographed exclusively with a celebrity.

We have photo agencies which will turn in a handsome profit by selling images obtained by deception and intrusion. And we have publicists who will happily collude with the media in breach of all the ethical codes of the public relations industry. I suppose the killer question is: "Will this ever change?" The answer has to be "No". I think that the promotion of celebrities and celebrity journalism has become such a vast industry that we cannot turn the clock back and, more to the point, who knows what the future holds. Who could have even guessed a few years that social networking websites would have taken off in the way they have and had such a tremendous impact.

If you watch continuous television news channels like BBC News 24 or Sky, you can see they encourage -- and increasingly rely -- on what is known as user generated content. So I accept that the journalism of my day has changed out of all recognition but I still believe we should continue to campaign for the highest possible editorial standards. If I tried to pin point the moment when news about celebrities began to change the character of journalism it would have to be the 13th of March 1986, the day of the Sun’s infamous headline: "Freddie Starr ate my hamster". Starr was a comedian down on his luck who had hired the publicist Max Clifford and with the help of the Sun’s editor Kelvin MacKenzie they concocted a story which opened the floodgates to made up journalism.

Clifford, in the auto-biography written for him by Angela Levin (Max Clifford Read All About It), acknowledges that the story was fabricated in the hope of securing some "fantastic publicity" for Starr. But it needed Clifford to give MacKenzie the OK that he and Starr would stand by the story. As Clifford said at the time, the potential for publicity was enormous and he thought the risk worth taking because "most of Freddie’s fans probably couldn’t read or write, and the few who could wouldn’t care what he ate". The ever-modest Clifford claims that what became "one of the most remembered newspapers headlines in the annals of Fleet Street" changed the way the newspaper industry dealt with celebrity news. I am afraid to say he is dead right.

His celebrated stunt helped to legitimise fabricated stories, embellished or even invented quotations and the now everyday practice of attributing quotes to anonymous sources. What you have to remember is that as late as the 1970s most newspapers would not run news stories unless the people who were being quoted were identified and named. But Kelvin Mackenzie -- backed by Rupert Murdoch -- changed the face of tabloid journalism. When you read a popular newspaper you only have to read three words "An Onlooker said…" to understand what I am talking about. So many of the tabloid stories are created around snatched photographs taken by the paparazzi. Once the picture arrives at the news desk a journalist has to dream up a story line.

That is why "an onlooker" is now the most quoted source in the country. The storyline can be sad, happy or just mad -- don’t worry the quotes can be made to fit. Here is a set of snatched photos of the television celebrity Simon Cowell having a row with his girl friend Terri Seymour at Heathrow Airport -- well that is what "one onlooker said" : "Their body language said it all…Judging by the look on Simon’s face, he was getting it with both barrels" (Daily Mirror 29.7.2006) Here’s another story about the model Liz Hurley on a fashion shoot with some children. The headline is "Liz in a spot of bother" and the whole story is based on "one onlooker who described it as child exploitation". (Metro 7.12.2006) See how these photos of Jade Goody have produced the headline "Jade Baddy" as she is snapped parking in a disabled bay at the Lakeside shopping centre. (Sun 1.8.2006)

In the aftermath of his divorce settlement with Heather Mills, Paul McCartney was photographed taking a "romantic beach stroll" with American heiress Nancy Shevell. The storyline was pretty self evident but again the only source is an "onlooker" who said they "seemed…like they’d been together for years." (Sun 1.4.2008). I have a stack of examples of other celebrities caught at embarrassing moments: Jude Law, Keira Knightley, the food guru Gillian McKeith and so on…all the stories quoting anonymous onlookers.

Perhaps we should feel sorry for the journalists who have to churn out these stories. They are all done to the same formula. If the celebrity and his or her partner are smiling, then it is "a reconciliation", if there any sign of stress then it is "a row". Celebrity reporting of this kind might be considered nothing more than entertaining dross but what so concerns a journalist like myself is that we now have a generation of journalists who think nothing of making up quotes. And this has become a cancer, eating away at the credibility of the media. Look at the political reporting of today: many stories are based on anonymous quotes from Downing Street aides, Whitehall insiders, ministerial sources, friends at Westminster and so on. Of course investigative reporters, columnists and the like have always been careful not to reveal their sources but for news reporters it was different and back in the 1960s when I was on The Times you could not get a story in the paper without clear attribution.

Now The Times will lead the paper on stories based entirely on anonymous quotes from Whitehall insiders and other unidentified sources. Journalists in many other countries -- especially the United States -- are required by their newspapers to identify their sources. We do not have a crisis of conscience over ethical issues like this in the UK and this gets me back to my friend the onlooker. What he -- or she -- has done is open the door to call kinds of collusion and manipulation. Quite a few of the snatched pictures we see in the papers were in all probability staged for that precise purpose. Photographers sometimes work in league with celebrities. They arrange an unusual photo-opportunity, the photographer sells the picture and a storyline to go with it and then the two of the split the proceeds.

This is a business which is shrouded in secrecy and there are always vehement denials of collusion. The celebrated photographer Jason Fraser, who has enjoyed exceptional access to celebrities, is known to work on what can only be described as arranged photo-opportunities. Here is the Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo, with his latest girl friend, said by an onlooker to be looking "a bit glum". (Daily Mirror 24.4.2006) But the are no direct quotes or facts to substantiate that assertion. The whole story has been created around the photo -- and it was taken by Jason Fraser. The assumption has to be that access was agreed and that it was an arranged photo-shoot for which a storyline had to be invented. However, it is presented as though it was a snatched photo -- taken without the knowledge of Ronaldo and his girlfriend.

News editors like pictures which present celebrities caught off guard -- so these are then staged for that purpose but the reader is not told that the sense of drama is obviously fake. Heat magazine has made a name for itself by publishing photographs which celebrities say they wish had never been taken. Clearly for the publicist this is marvellous way of getting publicity -- a trick that Max Clifford perfected back in the 1980s. And I am afraid this has opened the door to yet another debasement of journalistic standards, this time by what are known as the "3am girls". This is the by-line of the showbiz reporters on the Daily Mirror and they have given their name to a type of journalism which allows the press to live off the cult of celebrity. Their aim always is to get as close a possible to celebrities at showbiz events in the hope of giving their readers the sense that they too were guests at the party. The "girls" have to illustrate their familiarity with the stars by getting photographed alongside them whenever possible.

So here is the Daily Mirror’s "3am girl" Clemmie pictured with the Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a drinks party. Over the page there is Clemmie again, photographed with Russell Brand, the "randiest man in showbiz", who was promoting his movie. (Daily Mirror 21.3.2008). Here is Clemmie again next day pictured with the Spice Girl Mel C (Daily Mirror 22.3.2008) The trouble with this type of journalism is that it sycophantic. It just has to be. If the "3am girls" write stories which are critical of celebrities, if they break confidences or publish sneaky stories they wont get invited to any more showbiz parties and the publicists will withdraw the access they enjoy. This explains why so much of this celebrity show biz reporting is so anodyne.

It is pretty obvious these showbiz pages are being manipulated: they provide publicity in return for the kind of access which reporters and photographers would otherwise be denied. The demand for exclusive interviews and pictures of celebrities has opened the door to another malign influence: the celebrities can demand that the publicity has to be on their terms. First of all the publicist and agent will decide in which paper or programme they would ideally like to place the story and which journalist they would like to conduct the interview. Then they will push for other conditions: often they demand picture and story-line approval, that is they must agree the photograph, the headline and even the content.

The same conditions can apply to broadcasters: if a celebrity is to be interviewed for television and radio there usually has to be an agreement first about the questions which are to be asked and which subjects are off limits, like marriage break-ups and so on. There will also be a requirement to give a plug for the film, play, book or whatever it is that is being promoted. The trick now is to ration journalists’ access to the celebrities so that it coincides with their latest output or production. Because the star concerned gives interviews so infrequently his or her relatively scarcity increases their newsworthiness. Product placement as it is known is now so commonplace that it has permeated right through the output even of the BBC, although many broadcasters believe the BBC should not have been commercialised in this way.

You can easily tell by the give away signs that what you are seeing or hearing is really just a puff for the celebrity. But because the competition is so great within the media, editors, producers and journalists have no alternative but to accept these pre-conditions. If an author is being interviewed you will often see the book is in shot -- perhaps being held in the hand of the author or placed on a table near where the interview is being conducted. When you see film stars being interviewed you can often tell that the lighting and framing of the picture is nothing like the normal news shot. This is because the film company will have insisted on its own television crew lighting and framing the shot. Sometimes a poster for the film is in the background.

I followed up one of these public relations shoots at the Dorchester hotel when Kate Beckinsale was giving interviews to promote her new film Underworld. Sky’s reporter told me she was allowed just seven minutes. All she could do was ask questions. The filming was done by the production company and the reporter could not get any of the shots she wanted. As Kate had just left Michael Sheen and become an item with the film’s director Len Wiseman, what the reporter wanted was a close up of the ring on Kate Beckinsale’s finger…but that of course was off limits. Another even more worrying development is that celebrities will demand a fee to be interviewed. They all have agents and they all want a cut of a star’s earnings, so up goes the price. And again it is the media proprietors with the biggest cheque books who get the best interviews.

Television chat shows also have to pay out big money to secure the most popular guests. So you can see how journalistic standards have been corrupted by the cult of celebrity. So insatiable is the demand -- especially for highly revealing kiss and tell stories -- that the sky is the limit when it comes to sensational disclosures about an A list celebrity. This gets me back to Max Clifford and his most sensational kiss and tell client Rebecca Loos who claims she made more than a million pounds from selling her story about her affair with the footballer David Beckham. Clifford handled the sale of her kiss and tell to the News of the World for £300,000 and the paper ran it as a world exclusive (4.4.2004).

Rebecca landed an exclusive interview with Sky News which paid her a fee of £125,000 and she later secured fees for further interviews and television appearances. Rupert Murdoch got his money’s worth as Rebecca’s story also provided an exclusive for the Sun: "Becks, Sex and Me" (Sun 10.4.2004). Clifford takes 20 per cent of any deal he makes and he certainly does not miss a trick when negotiating with the national newspapers on behalf of a client. When he represented Faria Alam, a secretary at the Football Association who had an affair with the former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, Clifford pulled off a double. He sold her story two Sunday newspapers on the same and they each paid £200,000.

The News of the World dubbed it Svengate under the headline: "Faria: My Story. FA bosses knew all along Sven lusted after me". The headline in the Mail of Sunday perhaps did more justice to a traditional kiss and tell story: "Faria: Sven was a master of love" (Mail on Sunday, 8.8.2004) Clifford obtained another £100,000 for her for an interview with the Trevor MacDonald programme on itv. So a cool half a million for Faria. Swedish journalists visiting London soon after the story broke told me that under Swedish law they would never have been able to initiate such a story but once it appeared on the News of the World’s website they felt free to quote from it and run the story. It is an example of how the sensational journalism of the United Kingdom can often set the agenda in other countries too.

What so concerns me about the way Clifford has acquired a celebrity status in his own right is that you often see him presented on television and radio interviews as though he is an impartial observer. He is allowed to give his side of the story and cast all sorts of aspersions about the behaviour of other people without the BBC or any other broadcaster giving a health warning about the reliability of what Clifford is saying. Clifford earns more by protecting celebrities than by exposing them and he uses all sorts of tricks to ensure that journalists are thrown off the scent so that damaging stories do not get into the papers. Sometimes he will even bribe a reporter by supplying an alternative story if their paper will agree to lay off his client.

Soon after publication of the kiss and tell by Rebecca Loos, Clifford was explaining how he could have kept David Beckham’s name out of the paper if the footballer had been prepared to pay Clifford’s fee. He told This Morning on ITV (27.4.2004) that the story largely hinged on the fact that Rebecca Loos had retained on her mobile phone all the sexy text messages which she had received from the footballer. Clifford said the first thing he would have done if David Beckham had been his client would have been to make sure that Beckham had mislaid his phone and to have found that, lo and behold, it had been used by one of Beckham’s friends and that it was the friend who had sent all the messages to Rebecca.

Clifford said that once a newspaper’s lawyers knew that Beckham was denying having used the phone and that a friend had come forward and owned up, no paper would have dared to run the story. The friend, would of course, have "been paid handsomely to keep his mouth shut". As Clifford explains in his autobiography he is happy to be both poacher and gamekeeper which is perhaps not surprising as he gets 75 per cent of his income from protecting stars from just kind of publicity which proved so damaging to David and Victoria Beckham. It is Clifford’s willingness to deceive journalists to protect his clients -- and the brazen way he defends this practice -- which should make broadcasters think twice before parading him as a neutral and independent expert.

Clifford adopted his usual holier than though tone on the Today programme on Radio 4 (19.3.2008) when he joined in the general condemnation of the unacceptable of often inaccurate reporting during the interminable investigations by the Portugese Police into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. When commenting on the apologies by the Daily Express and Daily Star (19.3.2008) for the one hundred false stories which they had published about Madeleine’s parents, Gerald and Kate McCann, Clifford said there was no justification for a lot of the damaging things which had been written about them or about the first suspect Robert Murat.

The public had been presented with facts but Clifford said they were nothing more than rumour. When I heard Clifford’s tirade against the ethics of the news media I could not understand why John Humphrys did not at least give listeners a health warning by asking Clifford whether he himself might have a vested interest in the story. If the Daily Mail is to be believed Clifford is standing by to help Robert Murat, the first of the suspects questioned over Madeleine’s disappearance. Once he is no longer a suspect, the Mail reported that Clifford was ready to consider assisting Murat to clear his name.

So here is Clifford, the originator of the storyline "Freddie Starr ate my Hamster" -- and the publicist who would have happily fabricated a story to get David Beckham off the hook -- being given every opportunity on the Today programme to present himself as an independent, ethically-minded purveyor of facts and a resolute defender of decent journalism, a proposition which I find hard to take.

Clifford proudly relates how Rebecca’s kiss and tell about Beckham was judged to be scoop of the year at the 2004 British Press Awards, another first for the Murdoch cheque book over investigative reporting. Paid-for journalism took the honours at the 2006 awards. Front page of the year was won by the Sun for a mobile phone photo of Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi soldier at a friend’s birthday bash. The image of "Harry the Nazi" (Sun 13.1.2005) was syndicated around the world earning a tidy sum for News International and far in excess of the £12,000 said to have been paid by the student friend who took the picture on his mobile phone. He was exposed by the by the Sunday Mirror (6.2.2005) which splashed on another royal exclusive: "Harry’s Traitor…student who sold Nazi pic." The award for scoop of the year in 2006 went to the Daily Mirror for its exclusive; "Cocaine Kate…supermodel Kate Moss snorts line after line" (15.9.2005) who was pictured during what was said to have been an undercover operation. The trade in images captured surreptitiously on mobile phones and closed circuit television is big business. Mick Jagger’s daughter Elizabeth was caught on camera at a nightclub and the images revealed "11 minutes of shame": "Jagger’s girl caught having sex on cctv" (News of the World 20.2.2005).

When it comes to deciding whether to publish images taken without the permission of the person involved, the British press is judge and jury thanks to the system of self regulation which is in the hands of the Press Complaints Commission. The code of practice is explicit: "It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in a private place without their consent. Note - Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy." However, editors do not need to observe the code if they can demonstrate that publication of the photograph is in the public interest.

Such is the power of the press that no British government has dared to legislate against the newspapers with a legally-enforceable code of conduct. However in a rare prosecution for intrusive behaviour, the royal editor of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, was jailed for four months in January 2007 after admitting that he colluded with a freelance investigator to intercept and retrieve more than 600 mobile phone messages including some left for Princes William and Harry. The investigator, Glenn Mulcaire was sentenced to six months. Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World, resigned immediately in the wake of the two convictions for eavesdropping.

When it comes to apologising for inaccuracies and intrusion, the tabloids rarely give their apologies much prominence. The most prominent exception in recent years was the front page apologies by the Daily Express and the Daily Star (19.3.2008) for their inaccurate reports suggesting that Gerry and Kate McCann had caused the death of their missing daughter Madeleine. These apologies were in stark contrast to the treatment of the former soccer star Stan Collymore. "I Lied" was the Sun’s headline (3.11.2004) over a report which claimed that Collymore had signed a confession declaring he was "a lying scumbag who beats up women". The following month the Press Complaints Commission ruled that the report was misleading; Collymore had not confessed to lying and in fact he had been the victim of a stunt in which his signature was obtained by the Sun by subterfuge. Instead of a front-page apology, the Sun tucked away the adjudication on page 32 after devoting the first twelve pages of the paper to its report and photograph of the monster tsunami of December 2004.

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