Posts Tagged ‘max mosley’

Taming Tabloid Tittle Tattle

Yesterday I took part in the Taming Tabloid Tittle Tattle debate at the brilliant Battle of Ideas at the Barbican. Roy Greenslade and I, loosely defending the right to celebrity privacy, took on Jo Phillips and Patrick Hayes, arguing the case for unrestricted press freedom. I say loosely because what emerged through the very wide ranging discussion was an understanding across the board of the complex nuances of the argument. Phone hacking, naked royals and plebgate were all deftly handled by the able panel, and the ghost of Jimmy Savile was predictably present at the table. I won’t attempt to encapsulate the entire argument- the Battle of Ideas will be posting the full debate on their youtube channel in due course- but a few points are worth drawing out.

Jo Phillips illustrated the tabloid obsession with celebrity when she spoke about her experiences working on the media strategy for Live8 in 2005, and the challenges of striking the balance between focussing press attention on the stars and the rather more serious messages motivating the campaign. The charities involved were concerned that too much attention was being paid to the celebrities. But of course, celebrity sells. It was the stars that gave the campaign its extraordinary reach around the world.

Celebrities are the gods of a secular age. This isn’t driven by the editors, it is driven by the readers who will buy extra issues in their thousands when a particular star appears on the cover. Although the revelations of Leveson may have caused editors to think twice about publishing stories such as the recent Kate Middleton pictures, they seem to have had almost no discernible impact on the reading habits of the Great British public themselves. It was ever thus- I told the story of one of the old ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 19th Century that published an illustration of ‘life on the moon’, selling 20,000 copies. When the image was inevitably outed as a fake, the title in question was able to print another 40,000 copies due to popular demand. Truth, and ethics, have rarely been the determining factor in our buying choices when it comes to newspapers.

But do we really believe that fame and privacy are incompatible? Have our fabulously wealthy, pampered celebrities entered into a Faustian pact? There are, of course, those celebrities that pursue fame at any cost. It is harder to have sympathy with those that happily profit from the public airing of their dirty laundry: the recent playing out of the Alex Reid/ Chantelle Houghton break up springs to mind. But others chose to manage their fame in a more private, dignified way- as a sometimes wanted, sometimes unwanted, side effect of a career in the public eye. Leveson has revealed the depths to which certain tabloid journalists have sunk in pursuit of sensation. Even those that believe in the unqualified good of a free press must be troubled by Sienna Miller’s account of being pursued down a dark alley by a group of camera wielding men, or the treatment of Charlotte Church’s mother by News of the World after her attempted suicide. This is not simply publishing stories that the individuals concerned might prefer to keep under wraps. In numerous incidents what is being described is concerted campaigns of intimidation and bullying.

Patrick Hayes highlighted the emphasis placed on intrusion into celebrity lives when, in his view, this is a phenomenon common to all of us in the modern world, citing the increasing infringement on private life by the state. Perhaps tabloid intrusion into the private lives of public figures has set a precedent for the way in which we all live now. These are two sides of the same coin: if we are concerned about one, we have to be concerned about the other. Hence the imposition on our privacy by the state is hardly a compelling argument for allowing tabloids to disclose so much of celebrities’ lives to us- unless the former is viewed as an unqualified good.

Roy Greenslade offered the concluding comments, arguing that, as a national newspaper editor, there were occasions when he was faced with compelling reasons to step outside a normal ethical framework. He believes that when a story is genuinely in the national interest, it is justified for a newspaper to do whatever is necessary to uncover it- even if that means breaking the law. But the end must justify the means. And when tawdry but ultimately inconsequential stories about Max Mosley’s sex life traumatise his family to the extent that his son commits suicide, it is rather difficult to argue that anyone is served by the means.

The News of the World: Tapping on Heaven’s Door?

It seems, of late, that sleaze is a gift worth giving and that it’s for life, not just for Christmas or for politicians. The latest example – the News of the World phone tapping scandal – is, in Variety’s slanguage, a “dramedy”. It has the potential for seriously succulent consequences, which might be deeply costly for News International. The potential scale of the scandal is enormous.

Most agents and celebrities will be trying to find out if Nick Davies’ research is robust, wondering if they are one of the thousand celebrities whose phones were hacked. If nothing else, the alleged espionage will result in a welter of wealthier celebrities – all thanks to Davies’s diligence.

These are dark times for executives in the Wapping gulag. The sound of gnawing of fingernails will do nothing to deaden the relentless hum of prurient, smug outrage from the celebrity commentariat. For some battle-scarred PR flaks it will come as no surprise that the tabloids have deployed the dark arts of espionage to root out succulent showbiz sweetmeats.

But, from my standpoint, I am expecting the hacking scandal to empower prominent celebrities to wreak legal havoc in a bout of retrospective revenge. Wasn’t it Edward Gibbon who said: “Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive”? Celebrities will certainly be riffing on the first part of that quote in the coming months – the genie is about to be escape the bottleneck of secrecy and those affected will almost certainly start suing News International.

I guess that the News of the World will struggle to contain the details of the Taylor settlement, the details of which they have, to date, been able to withhold from the public domain. Once out, however, the paper will be forced to pay out and the ensuing costs will cripple the title. I expect a snowstorm of writs and a couple of spectacular court cases – all of which will make the News of the World look very feeble. Many celebrities will want to follow the Taylor example and will be eager and greedy to extract their own a six figure sums – I know that various high profile legal figures have already attempted to discover who the targets were.

It’s a fact that many misguided public figures feel that their treatment by the likes of News Of the World, who leverage mundane and routine facts and turn them into highly pejorative and prejudicial reports, is entirely unjustified. To achieve monetary reparation for what they see as unfair treatment will certainly be a revenge of sorts. And the paper has played into their hands.

But can you image the chaos the likes of Max Mosley, David Beckham, Gordon Ramsey or even Max Clifford, aggrieved and determined to get some reparation, might create if they can prove that the News of the World has gained access to their phone messages? Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but I’m certain it’ll be heating it up in the microwave of public attention soon enough.

The wrath of a celebrity is impossible to underestimate. There is an apocryphal tale about a celebrity crimper, apoplectic that he had been turned over by the News of the World. To ease the pain he created an effigy of Andy Coulson out of a teddy bear, which he threw it into the bathtub, doused it with lighter fluid, and set it on fire in a fit of voodoo celebrity therapy. Now it is possible that he will be calling Messrs Schillings instead to achieve a more satisfactory – and conventional – form of retribution; a financial sting.

The likely consequence of this potentially seismic activity is that the world of celebrity will have the upper hand in tabloid land in the future. Journalistic research will have to rebooted and the honourable profession will need their own PR to rebuild a tarnished reputation. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.