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.