Media: Bought and told: the other price war
Good news costs money. Bad news costs a fortune. Paul McCann works out the price of the kiss-and-sell over three of seven cols. By Name
Tuesday 23 June 1998
When the NoW buys up the story of a woman who has slept with a celebrity, usually a footballer or a soap star, it keeps her hidden near Wapping then takes her for a photo shoot at the offices. She is told to choose an outfit from the clothes rail and is manoeuvred into a provocative pose.
The kiss-and-tell is the bread and butter of cheque-book journalism but it is no longer the most notorious tabloid technique.
Last week a Massachusetts judge went so far as to try specifically to ban Louise Woodward from selling her story to a newspaper. Woodward herself maintains at every opportunity that she will not be selling her story - despite the fact that her family took pounds 40,000 from the Daily Mail in November for their story.
This comes just weeks after the two freed nurses returned from Saudi Arabia to pick up sums reported at between pounds 65,000 and pounds 120,000 from the Mirror and the Express and to headlines such as "Home to make a killing" from the Sun.
The buy-up, as it is known in the trade, is now as much the story as any story someone has to sell.
Such is the importance of the buy-up to the tabloid press that being able to negotiate a deal and wield a cheque book is now as much a journalistic skill as shorthand or spelling. On a day-to-day basis, tip fees and small amounts of money change hands for run-of-the-mill stories. Just last week someone made pounds 10,000 from the NoW for a story about a Fifa official selling World Cup tickets.
But big stories such as the returning Saudi nurses or the nanny and her family are put into specialist hands. Every newspaper has an executive in charge of big buy-ups. At the Daily Mail it is executive editor Jon Steafel, at the NoW it is managing editor Stuart Kuttner while the Sun's deputy editor, Rebekah Wade, has a formidable reputation for securing what is known in tabloid speak as the "Big Chat". One tabloid buy-up expert says: "In a straight auction the NoW is difficult to beat. When the subject is purely in it for the money they will ask for sealed bids and the NoW has the deepest pockets."
The NoW also has the advantage of being able to spread the cost of a big buy-up by sharing its story, and costs, with the Sun and Sky Television. Sometimes even the Times and Sunday Times have been part of a News International- wide deal.
Mark Stephens, of lawyers Stephens Innocent, negotiates regularly for people trying to sell their story. He says: "News International are very good at getting in early before the subject is really a story."
News International got in early on the Fred West case and tried to buy up every member of the West Family. Some knew they would make more than pounds 70,000 for their story and, before the trial even started, one became notorious in Gloucestershire for driving around the county in his brand new four-wheel drive.
The amount paid for a story depends on a number of variables. A celebrity kiss-and-tell sells few extra papers unless it is a really big scandal. But the amount of money will go up if the teller is attractive - hence the NoW clothes rail - and will go into salacious detail about the celebrity's sexual performance. If the story makes only a page lead it will earn the teller between pounds 5,000 and pounds 15,000. For a double-page spread with good pictures the rate will rise to about pounds 20,000.
If the subject comes to a newspaper with a so-called "sting" in mind - so that pictures can be taken or phones tapped while an affair is ongoing - the amount will rise to more than pounds 50,000.
Lady Bienvenida Buck, who had an affair with an air marshall, made pounds 100,000 from her initial story.
But the big human interest story that dominates the broadsheets, television and radio is worth the most because people will switch papers to read the story from the participant's point of view.
Stephens estimates that Louise Woodward's story, if she wanted to sell, could be worth pounds 250,000 to pounds 500,000. In the case of the Saudi Nurses the two were well-advised and secured 80 per cent of the syndication rights to their stories on top of their initial fees.
As well as the deal makers there are also specialist "babysitters" at each paper. Once you have paid five figures for your subject you have to keep her away from the rest of the press and you have to extract her often traumatic story. The press euphemistically refers to people speaking from a secret location or a safe house. In fact they are usually in a suite in an inexpensive hotel.
But the babysitter's role is often as important as the money. Journalists can spend months getting to know a potential buy-up subject.
This might explain why it was the Mail's showbusiness editor, Rebbecca Hardy, and not a reporter based in America or Manchester, who last week had extensive pieces on how the family had stuck together and supported each other. Harding explained that she had been getting to know the family for more than a year. During the trial the family was frequently accompanied by a Mail executive who was no-doubt protecting the paper's pounds 40,000 investment.
Mark Stephens says: "The Mail is very good at the tragic tale that tugs the heart-strings of Middle England. They send flowers, they offer the subject copy approval, they promise Lynda Lee-Potter will do the interview. They emphasise that they are not the trashy press and that they don't stitch people up. In fact they do extract every drop of juice out of someone's story."
The Mirror's buy-ups have improved under Piers Morgan after having suffered years of losing out to the Sun. The paper is now more aggressive and is winning people - even if, in the case of the Saudi nurses, it bought up the one who is facing a criminal charge in the UK.
The Express's long years of under-resourcing showed in its inexperienced handling of the nurse it bought, Deborah Parry. While the Mirror whisked Lucille McLaughlin away from Heathrow in a helicopter, a phalanx of heavyset Express executives bundled Parry through a scrum of reporters shouting "Did you kill her, Debbie?"
The question rather underlined the point that tabloid journalists are not always very nice people. It is for that reason that someone with a story to tell will turn to lawyers such as Mark Stephens or advisers such as Max Clifford, who takes 20 per cent of the payment.
A common double-cross by reporters is to go to a negotiation with a hidden tape recorder running. The subject is told they need to tell the story before a decision can be made on payment. The reporter leaves to check how high the price can go and never comes back. It's even better if the subject can be persuaded to get out the family photo album and then make a cup of tea. A stolen photograph and story can appear for no cost. Even more common is cutting the amount of money to be paid once the story has been secured and the subject is tucked up in a hotel. The newspaper relies on the fact that the subject is usually in the eye of a media storm and their house is probably surrounded. The last thing they want to be is abandoned by the newspaper's minders and have to re-negotiate with another title. Yet according to some reporters, getting a middleman involved will not necessarily insulate you from what is, quite simply, a seedy affair: one experienced tabloid reporter says: "For about a year I wondered why I was never winning any bids for people. Then I realised - everyone else offers the negotiator a bung. It's one way of guaranteeing you win."
So while a newspaper's timing, strategy, babysitters and experience all play a part in buy-ups, the only thing that really, really counts, is what always counts: money.
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