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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad