Leveson Inquiry Lifts Lid on British Tabloid Tactics

By , Columnist
The Leveson Inquiry into media standards and ethics has begun in the UK. Last week  Dominic Mohan, the editor of The Sun (sister paper of the now defunct News of the World) told the inquiry that the way showbiz journalists operate is "like a political journalist in the lobby". Mr. Mohan (below with Take That singer Robbie Williams) added. "You do have regular discussions with showbiz agents and if you have a column to fill on a daily basis, the information they give you is of interest to your readers."

F_200402_february13_236385a.jpgWhen asked whether there were trade-offs - deals where a journalist may agree not to run certain stories in return for other exclusives - he replied: "Probably no more than in the lobby system, when a spin doctor gives some information to a lobby journalist".

I have no idea about trade-offs in modern politics, but I was told in the early 90s of deals done by party chiefs to keep certain private information about characters on both sides of the Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords) out of the press. That was another age and we have rather more to worry about these days.

Despite Mr. Mohan's comments, I would be surprised if British people today are really that bothered about politicians' personal peccadilloes, considering the enormity of the task the current UK government has before it in reducing the horrific deficit bequeathed by the last Labour government. I suspect that jobs, mortgages, and how to pay the bills are of more concern to most folk.

But back to the bit about showbiz stories. While Mr. Mohan's words are no doubt true, I wonder if they give the whole picture. Over the years I have worked with the press and broadcasting media, I've picked up a few ideas of what goes on behind the scenes. I certainly believe that some public relations companies are very powerful and some celebrities have agents/ managers/spokespeople who rule the  roost.

I once tried to place with a tabloid gossip column a perfectly innocuous story about the wedding dress of a wannabe celeb. There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line and I was told: "The man she is marrying is involved with a lot of what we do here." This was a coded message which roughly translates:  "We daren't write anything unless he approves it."

Sometimes, I have laughed out loud at the 'interviews' with certain stars. Whenever I see the 'How Much I Love my Mother/Girlfriend' newspaper or magazine spread, I suspect that a hasty deal has been struck to keep a rather less pleasant story out of the press.

Then there is the fact that stars are often part of a stable of celebrities managed or represented by one person or group. Let us say Star A is caught out misbehaving and a paper or magazine approaches their 'people' for a reaction. The result could be a heart-warming interview along the lines above, or another performer from the stable could be pressed into action.

Usually hungry for publicity, Star B might be informed of a photoshoot to be taken seemingly unawares in a nice, exotic location, all expenses paid. That is why, dear reader, you might see Star B coyingly showing off a new bikini or 'boyfriend', although you would never know that she is sharing the profits with the photographer. And Star A's behaviour is kept neatly under wraps....

The romantic (and other) interests of one uber-celebrity are never exposed in the UK press although they are the talk of the television world. Some months ago a scurrilous website posted a suggestion that all is not as it seems with this person. Within hours that posting had disappeared into the ether. It takes money to police the Internet to this extent. Wealthy stars can afford their 'people' to keep their image burnished in the public eye. Either that,  or they rush to the high courts for injunctions to prevent unsavoury information appearing in the media.

I have seen costs of injunctions estimated at £60,000 just to get the order executed. Then costs roll on if lawyers try to take action against social networks and gossip websites. The Internet, rather than the print or broadcast media, is proving to be the undoing of stars with habits they don't want you to know about. No wonder some are prepared to dig deep into their pockets to have their 'people' watching out for anything that might challenge that carefully constructed public image.

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Margaret Holder has been writing about the Royal Family in newspapers and magazines for thirty years. She also broadcasts frequently on the BBC, both radio and television. She reckons she has now written more royal documentaries than anyone else in the world. Some are still being shown on channels in…

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