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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 April 2007, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
When the tabs come to town...
Papers are more desperate for news than ever

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The British sailors released in Iran have taken a battering from some quarters for selling their stories to the media, with the row sparking a ban on further sales and an MoD review. But those who have never been at the centre of a press scrum have little idea to what lengths reporters and editors may go to get their man.

Make no mistake. The media is a ravening beast. Hunting in packs, its members will stop at nothing to get an exclusive.

It normally happens a bit like this. You, the unsuspecting member of the public, do something newsworthy. Or someone in your family does. The media descend on your house. They are rather keen to speak to you. They don't plan to go away until they do.

One of the classic lines people are told is that this is the way to get us off your back, everyone else will go away
Mike Jempson

All reporters, whether they work for the Sun or the BBC or Caravanning Gazette, are persuasive, honey-tongued people. But when the going gets tough they might resort to an additional and controversial tool in their armoury - the chequebook.

There are few mainstream news organisations in Britain that would not consider paying for photos, footage or a story. Only budgets, news values and ethical considerations differ.

Newspaper journalists might be issued with stock contracts in their first day on the job. They carry headed notepaper and clean white envelopes in the belief that a person will still be tempted to read what is pushed through their door, even if they have chosen not to respond to persistent knocking.

Opening lines

The emphasis from the reporters is that the subject will get the chance to tell their side of the story, without the possibility of distortion, and their signing up to an exclusive deal will cause the rest of the media to leave their quiet cul-de-sac.

Mike Jempson, who runs the MediaWise trust, has campaigned against chequebook journalism and says he has heard a slew of horror stories.

"Things get out of hand. One of the classic lines people are told is that this is the way to get us off your back. Everyone else will go away. It's a great line but not strictly accurate.

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler
Journalism changed after the Profumo affair

"First of all you get sticking cheques or offers of money through the door and saying we will look after you when other people won't."

Each member of the pack might have a favourite opening line. Perhaps "we have had a huge response from readers to your story". Or "would you be strong enough to talk about it?".

Having "bought up" a subject, newspapers and broadcasters might choose to smuggle them away from the pack, perhaps to a closely-guarded hotel room where they can be interviewed in peace, away from the prying eyes of competitors.

Media commentator and former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade says the modern breed of chequebook journalism dates back to the 1960s, when episodes like the Profumo affair whetted the public's appetite for scandal.

"The reason we do it in Britain is the incredible level of competition between London-based media. It doesn't happen in the US. The payment is because papers want to get ahead of each other."

Loos record

A reader can be captivated by the sums they think might be available for a good story.

Rebecca Loos earned £750,000 from her various deals with the media, and Max Clifford says he has dealt with a number of stories sold for between £200,000 and £300,000.

"The public were aware newspapers always made money from the stories, but the public never did. They learned. I suppose I helped that come about."

Faria Alam and Max Clifford
Max Clifford is many people's first port of call

Former Sun editor Stuart Higgins, who now runs a PR company, says the media is hungrier than ever.

"What's happened over the last five to 10 years means in many ways newspapers are struggling in their market, competing with the internet, television, radio and mobile phones. Newspapers are more desperate for news than they have ever been.

"In most of the tabloids you will see every single day, saying we pay cash for stories, the kind of culture which probably in modern terms is known as citizen journalism. My job every day at the Sun was to 'out exclusive' the Daily Mirror."

This desire to get an exclusive, something that will make other editors' stomachs turn, drives every reporter. Reporters are told from an early stage to "poison the well", get the story and make the subject think that other reporters are up to no good and should be shunned.

Spoiler danger

No editor is pleased when he is beaten to a scoop, and Mr Higgins admits those who have lost out because of moral or financial qualms can choose to fight back.

"It is absolutely a classic symptom of any tabloid war that the paper that gets the story is smiling, [the other papers] will absolutely do their best to discredit that story or the value of their story."

MediaWise is blunter. "Once you sell the story exclusively, everyone else goes looking for the other story to rubbish you as a spoiler," says Mr Jempson.

Rebecca Loos
Rebecca Loos is said to have made £750,000

And he says the notion that selling a story to one of the waiting pack will help the subject to get a handle on the situation is a myth.

"They trip up over each other to get the story and the person who absolutely loses control is the person who agrees to the deal.

"They don't understand these contracts, which are often not worth the paper they are written on. It is not a good way to get serious information across. If it's not 'interesting' enough you don't get the money."

He has dealt with a woman who says she was told she would not be paid after she refused to pose for scantily-clad pictures, and a couple who despite being paid just £100 for their story were told not to speak to any other part of the media for three months.

Newspapers' control

"Our advice is not to sell stories because of the complete lack of control."

And Mr Clifford - who says he was approached by some of the Iran captives but told them not to sell their stories - says that control can be elusive.

"It brings more control, but the vast majority of control still goes to the newspapers.

I find it distasteful when it is a tragedy - if it is a scandal, then it's to be expected
Max Clifford

"One of the reasons more and more people come to me is that they or their friends or someone they know of was turned over."

Mr Greenslade, having spent much of his career at the Sun and Mirror buying stories, has now changed his stance on the paid-for story.

"I accepted what was the status quo. That was what one did if you worked on popular papers."

Now he believes that away from the celebrity PR machine, ordinary people with an important story should not seek money.

"If you have a story to tell, you should tell it without selling it. There has been a change in the culture of Britain. We have lost the sense of community. Our greatest nexus is money."

But the former editor, now a professor of journalism, admits the next generation of reporters still accept the same methods of pursuing a quarry in order to buy their story.

Even a veteran like Max Clifford can find some of the media behaviour shocking.

"I find it distasteful when it is a tragedy, when somebody has died in tragic circumstances. If it is a scandal, then it's to be expected. If it's someone famous or rich they can take care of it."

Media occupation

And whether the story is an overweight child in Wallsend, a pair of escaped pigs or a terrible tragedy, the media can soon arrive hunting for exclusives.

Even for those who do not sell their stories, dealing with weeks of media occupation can be a stressful experience. Sandra McCabe, as a friend of Louise Woodward's family, saw the problems of the media scrum when the au pair was convicted of killing a baby in her care in Boston.

Editors' blog
The BBC was as anxious as anyone to hear the sailors' stories first hand
Alison Ford,
UK news editor, BBC News

"It left the village traumatised. Everyone wanted to fade into obscurity. It just got silly. There were hundreds of journalists from all over the world.

"They said there was a big champagne party [after Woodward's release]. But the media gave out that champagne and took pictures and said we were having a party. People turned on us."

And there is a final warning for those who do accept the blandishments of the pack and sell their stories. They may find themselves having made the journey from ordinary citizen to media target.

As Mr Jempson says: "You are then regarded as fair game forever."

Send us your comments using the form below.

A friend of mine was caught in a media scrum a few years ago. She was on the committee of a choir. Another committee member, a single guy so far as she knew, died suddenly in suspicious circumstances. They traced her, and set up camp outside her flat. There were phone calls day and night. There were notes through her door. There were 'pizza deliveries' she hadn't ordered, all to try to get her to open her door. She had a first floor flat, but had to keep her curtains closed because of 'window cleaners' on ladders trying to contact her by knocking on her windows.

She only knew the guy through the choir. She had only visited his flat once, for a choir committee meeting which at least 4 other people attended - as choir meetings circulated around the various committee members' houses. Yet for 4 days she was hounded, unable to leave her flat. Hate to think what it would have been like if she had actually done something newsworthy . . .
L Smith, Edinburgh, Scotland

In washington, after the sniper shootings, the mother of the boy who was injured by the sniper said that the media had caused far more damage to her son then the shooting. The media followed him everywhere, pounded on the door in the middle of the night, took photos of him through school windows. She broke down in tears in a press conference, begging the media to leave him alone - which made front page news, and caused them to chase him even more. I thought this was just an American phenomenen, but our media is becoming just as bad. The media seems to think that any victim, or any accidental hero, is their property, and won't let hurting, grieving people have a minute to themselves to heal.
MB, London

"Now he believes that away from the celebrity PR machine, ordinary people with an important story should not seek money. "If you have a story to tell, you should tell it without selling it. There has been a change in the culture of Britain. We have lost the sense of community. Our greatest nexus is money." I see... So 'we' should give our stories away for free so that the papers can sell more... They make money from it... Why shouldn't we? I think that has to be one of the most hypocritical comments I have ever heard! The papers already make many millions - why just line their pockets even more!
Andy Drinkwater, Lymm, UK

Roy Greenslade suggesting that "ordinary people with an important story" should "tell it and not sell it"? Whatever next? He spent years lining the pockets of his paper's owners by doing exactly what he's now criticising - and then sheds crocodile tears because we've "lost the sense of community". Is it me or is this nothing short of breathtaking hypocrisy? He's damn right we've lost our sense of community, thanks partly to the gutter press dumbing down and pandering to (and encouraging) the lowest common denominator in society. To now be lectured by someone like him is sickening in the extreme (or is he simply trying to save his old colleagues some money by convincing "normal" people that, unlike celebrities, they shouldn't expect to be paid for their stories?). Was there really no-one else available from whom you could get an authoritative comment on this important story - did you have to resort to a poacher turned gamekeeper?
Steve Pauline, Warrington, UK

I don't agree with the media hounding people, as it has been proven that this is dangerous and obviously it can make people fear for their safety. But who is it that reads this news? At the end of the day, sensationalism and scandal sells papers, and as long as this is the case it will continue. In the media's defence, they do have some positives. How do you think certain news is spread? How would you have known about the dangers of bird flu, for example, if it weren't for the media? And would the Beckhams' kidnap plot have been uncovered had it not been for the media (I think it was The Sun or The News of the World that caught the kidnappers out?). The media do have their uses, just don't forget that.
Leanne, Peterborough, Cambs, UK

It is disgusting and the people to blame are those that read trashy tabloids (particularly the Sun and Mail) and celebrity magazines. They create the demand.
Keith, London, UK

I work in the print media..and admit I've witnessed the methods described here..but there's a slight whiff of hypocrysy in this article..and ex-editor of the Sun warning people of the evil media..maybe his way of making amends I guess..and with this website too,with the tag line at the end of most news stories,asking if any of the viewers have witnessed the event,and would they like to contribute...citizen journalism for free...there's no one to pay (saves on the BBC's coffers/devalues trained journalists)..and it's the Beeb's chance to get an exclusive glimpse or alternate view...for free. Yes,the media is a powerful machine,that swallows innocents sometimes..but it's hard to find a true perspective on it when so many 'commentators' have their own agendas to fill
Anon, London

I find it particularly annoying that to head up a piece about cheque book journalism,a picture of photographers is used, many of whom are not the paparazzi everyone so likes to chastise. If it wasn't for the public's insatiable appetite for gossip / sleaze on their 'favourite' celeb there wouldn't be a market for it. Yes there are elements of the profession that do that, but also a proportion of news photographers that don't. Use a picture of Journos hounding their quarry, and don't fall back on the clichéd images of snappers being the perpetrators.
GeeDee, London

My daughter was caught up in a scandal a couple of years ago because of her association with someone famous. She lost everything because of it; her job, her home, her 'friends' and her reputation, all because the press pursued her relentlessly and made her life a miserable hell. They had a field day and said just about anything they wanted to say about her in the newspapers and she could do nothing about it. Seemingly they will do anything for a scoop; they even turned up on my doorstep and hassled me over here in the USA. They approached every member of her family; aunts ,uncles and cousins asking for any information about her. They even speculated in their columns what my deceased father; her grandfather, would have thought about her association with this person. Since then my daughter has changed her name and now lives a reclusive life in the English countryside. Her confidence has gone completely and she still dreads the press getting their foot in the door again. I think she is still suffering the way anyone would after a traumatic incident in their lives. Certainly her life will never be the same as it was before. I feel so angry towards the reporters and their editors who print all this nonsense just to sell their newspapers.
Mrs Kathy, North Carolina, USA

If you don't like it then distance yourself from it. Don't read Heat, don't vegetate in front of Big Brother, pick up a book, leave the house. Don't accept the media line uncritically. Encourage your friends/significant other to do the same. If more people thought about what their behaviour encouraged rather than flicking to the next bit of salacious gossip then there wouldn't even be any need for this discussion...
Jon, London

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