Media: A taste of honey that's not so sweet

Editors are hiring young, attractive female reporters. And there's no mystery about the reason why.
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The Independent Culture
Lawrence Dallaglio and Tom Parker Bowles, the latest celebrities to be exposed by the News of The World for allegedly using recreational drugs, share another, more common weakness.

The England rugby captain was quoted in the newspaper on Sunday as saying that "women are my Achilles heel". Publicist Parker Bowles, meanwhile, has been described by friends as being "a sucker for a pretty face".

The two men were thus easy prey for one of the oldest tricks in the tabloid repertoire: the honeytrap. Flattered by the attentions of a young and attractive undercover female reporter, they chattered away as a hidden tape recorder turned in the background.

All the tabloids use these tactics from time to time to coax their victims into committing indiscretions. In one of the most notorious episodes of recent years, Home Secretary Jack Straw's teenage son, William, bought cannabis for Mirror reporter Dawn Alford after she approached him with a female colleague in a south London pub.

But the News of The World is the acknowledged market leader in the entrapment game. It likes nothing better than a celebrity scalp on its front page, and has a long tradition of dispatching journalists to catch public figures in compromising situations.

In recent months, that trend has been stepped up. The editor, Phil Hall, admitted in an interview last week with Press Gazette, the trade journal, that he had deliberately recruited women in their mid-twenties over the past year. The women were often used to flirt, he said, adding: "The best cover on an investigative story can sometimes be a couple - you can't send two blokes to an orgy."

The Dallaglio sting began two months ago when the newspaper received a tip-off that he had used cocaine. It approached him, posing as a firm that could offer him a lucrative sponsorship contract. The reporter assigned to play the executive who would clinch the "deal" was Louise Oswald, a blonde Australian who, as well as being an experienced journalist, has what in tabloid parlance would be called pouting good looks and a buxom figure. Dallaglio spilled the beans after she plied him with alcohol in a hotel room.

Nadia Cohen, the reporter who exposed Parker Bowles after following him around at the Cannes film festival and asking him where she could buy cocaine, is one of the so-called "Hall's Angels", Phil Hall's new recruits.

These two stories have made the biggest waves recently, but they exemplify a modus operandi that is used routinely by Britain's biggest selling newspaper. According to Sophie Goodchild, a former News of the World staffer who now works for the Independent on Sunday, executives made clear to female journalists that they should use their feminine wiles to obtain information.

"The pressure was on to get the story - you used whatever it took to get people to talk," she said. "Flirtation was the name of the game."

Goodchild said she was once sent to a nightclub to catch a prison officer who had allegedly been selling drugs. "I deliberately dressed in a particular way. I wore a leather mini-skirt, thigh-length boots and a tight top.

"The idea was to lull people into a false sense of security, and it did work. But the golden rule was always to keep your knickers on, even when you were trying to expose a massage parlour. Phil Hall was very strict about that."

Another former female News of the World reporter said that, when investigating stories such as orgies or swingers' parties, women often worked in tandem with a male colleague. "It would be like `good cop, bad cop'," she said.

The tactics are, not surprisingly, defended by tabloid executives as legitimate. Piers Morgan, the Mirror editor, who used to edit the News of The World, said yesterday that he regarded the emphasis on the entrapment angle in the Dallaglio story as sexist.

"If the investigation had been done by a man, there wouldn't be half the fuss," he said. "The fact that a bright, young female reporter has nailed the English rugby captain for these alleged outrageous actions should be lauded as good investigative journalism."

Mr Morgan said: "If an offence is serious enough to warrant investigation, then anything goes. The News of the World used a well- worn device to make Dallaglio relax and confess."

Dallaglio himself, meanwhile, must be wishing he had heeded the words of Fran Cotton, tour manager on the England team's South African tour two years ago. In his book, Pride of Lions, Cotton recalled: "I told them that if they were sitting at a hotel bar just before midnight, were approached by a gorgeous young woman who started stroking their leg and told them how wonderful they were, they should be just a little suspicious."

Len Gould, former editor of the Sunday People, pointed out that entrapment tactics had been used for years. "It's an obvious move," he said. "Some people are obviously more susceptible to a pretty face. You get them drunk and, next thing you know, they've spilled their guts and you've got a tape full of stuff."

According to Piers Morgan, "You don't entrap someone to be a drug dealer. They either deal drugs or they don't. If you get specific information that a sportsman and role model is taking drugs, that's clearly in the public interest. The question is: how do you get him to admit to it? If you don't tape it, then he will simply deny all knowledge of the conversation."

Mr Morgan also denied that Ms Alford had been chosen for the William Straw story because she was a good-looking woman. The reason was that, apart from the fact that she was the person who got the original tip about him, she is a very experienced investigative journalist who uses her weekly column to nail drug dealers and villains. She uses the same methods, tape recorders and so on, for almost every job."

Bill Hagerty, another former Sunday People editor, sums up the tabloid editor's credo: "If the story is in the public interest, then it's legitimate to use subversion.

"And, if you send in a very attractive woman and play on someone's vanity, you are far more likely to get results."