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The struggle for tabloid content

Why private information was bought and sold.

There are many ways of creating content for a tabloid newspaper. Sometimes journalists actually find and report stories. Sometimes the content comes free of charge from PR companies or cultivated contacts, or is the mere "churnalism" of press releases. And sometimes, according to former Daily Star journalist Richard Peppiatt, the content is simply made up.

But there is another way for tabloids to obtain content, which does not require the exertion of research, or the gift of unpaid copy, or the fruit of sheer imagination. It is for content to be bought from suppliers. In this way the tabloid press is no different from any other media or non-media business: raw material is bought in, perhaps modified, and then sold to consumers as a company's branded product.

One form of buying content is the traditional "chequebook journalism" deployed for the celebrity or the naughty kiss-and-teller. However, this is just one form of purchasing content. Another form is to buy in from a pool of "inquiry agents" and "private investigators". Some of these diligent folk work for one title; some hawk their wares around a number of titles. Potential "stories" are then sold to editors, or to reporters who have pitched for space in that day's edition. Although this is all under the heady slogan of "freedom of the press", it is just another form of commercial activity, albeit one which casually disregards the privacy rights and dignity of the individuals whose personal details are usually the subject of these transactions.

And where do these "stories" come from? A variety of sources, including unlawfully obtained information, and phone-hacking was just one form of obtaining information. The significant Information Commissioners Report of 2006 demonstrated the sheer scale of this trade.

The way the phone hacking scandal unfolded has made it seem as if it was primarily a News International problem: concerns at the Royal Household leading to arrests in 2006 and the seizure and storage of Glenn Mulcaire's files (which otherwise may have been long destroyed); the on-going civil actions which were informed by that seizure; the work of Nick Davies and the Guardian; and the New York Times splash of September 2010. However, this is observational bias. There is no inherent reason why phone hacking and other "dark arts" were unique to the News of the World. They were just the ones careless enough to be found hacking into the phones at Buckingham Palace; and a great deal of what has happened since has flowed from that one mishap.

Every day the tabloid is filled with content, and all that content originates from one source to another. Over the last ten to fifteen years, tabloid editors - like so many "Masters of the Universe" - have bullied and provoked their staff to getting the most commercially useful copy for every edition. This daily achievement must have been quite exhilarating for all in the newsroom, and the next day it would happen all over again, with previous day's work quickly forgotten.

But it will have left many traces: financial transactions with outside content providers, and computer and telecoms records for how certain information was obtained. This is the sort of evidence which lingers long after the expletives and the intimidation of the busy newsroom are over for another day. And it is this evidence which will come back to haunt the newspaper men and women whose only concern at the time was to get content and then get to print.

The brutal tabloid mentality of being as indifferent to where stories came from as to how the stories affected the lives of the people involved, may now be the ultimate undoing of several newspapers and current (and former) editors, just as it was the reason for their transient -and one day forgotten - successes.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.