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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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