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.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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