Media: Revealed: the cover-up is back in fashion

After the revelations of MacIntyre Undercover, it is still difficult to get style editors to talk. Is the fashion press as sleazy as the business?
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The Independent Culture
TONIGHT ON BBC1 MacIntyre Undercover will update its investigation into sleaze in the fashion world. It will report - though this nearly was not the case - that its two targets at the Elite modelling agency, Gerald Marie and Xavier Moreau, have been suspended and their resignations accepted.

Unusually coy, it will not report further information that has reached Donal MacIntyre, namely that that the Elite agency in Paris took it upon itself to reinstate the pair last week, a gesture that would almost certainly have gone ahead had John Casablancas, chairman of Elite, not heard about it at his New York office, seen the disastrous PR implications and scuppered it immediately.

Nor will the programme mention something that has been a talking-point between a bemused MacIntyre and his producer and collaborator under cover, Colin Barr - the lack of support they have had in the press, and particularly from the fashion press.

Nor will MacIntyre and Barr disclose on TV that they were alerted to Gerald Marie by an investigative book about fashion, written in the Eighties: Model: the Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, by Michael Gross. They were able to follow this up because that book, too, instigated no investigations by the style and fashion press, leaving MacIntyre free to rediscover Gerald Marie.

Certainly, the few cries of horror in the nationals contrast massively with the case, say, of Gary Glitter. Yet in both cases children are involved, even if in fashion they are children with plenty of make-up, and superstar aspirations to match.

Gerald Marie, remember, was caught on camera boasting that he hoped to seduce contestants in the Elite Model Look contest, where the average age was 15 and some girls were much younger. His look of disappointment when he was unable to meet them as planned was unforgettable.

But now Elite executives, including even John Casablancas (who first issued an unconditional apology, condemning the "shocking, unacceptable" behaviour), and Marie himself, are able to question the BBC's integrity and talk about the "manipulation of cassettes".

It all sounds rather like the old "taken out of context" rebuttal with which every reporter is familiar. It seems fair to ask whether the lack of outrage in the press has encouraged bullishness at Elite.

Colin Barr, MacIntyre's producer, admits: "I'm surprised that more fashion journalists haven't picked up the story and run with it. And I'm disappointed that the journalists who deal with this area didn't feel able to defend the programme and the interests of the girls themselves."

Almost the only fashion writer to have written vigorously about abuses in the fashion industry since the programme is Brenda Polan of the Daily Mail. She is keen to distance herself from her fellow fashion journalists. "A lot of them talk to me about `our industry'," she says, "and I say, `it ain't my industry. My industry is print.'"

For Polan, this was a story that could not be ignored. "The Milan scene is particularly disgusting," she says. "You do see an awful lot of exploitation going on around these girls. Beautiful young women always attract sharks and pimps, but these people were meant to be looking after them."

Nicholas Coleridge, the head of Conde Nast, not only oversees the glossiest of fashion glossies, including Vanity Fair and Vogue; in his revealing book The Fashion Conspiracy he also wrote, pre-MacIntyre, of collusion between the fashion press and the lucrative, powerful world of designer houses. He senses a whiff of this here. "There are probably only a dozen girls in the world that magazines really want to use," he says. "So they don't want to fall out with the agencies."

Yet even Coleridge is loath to criticise the unwillingness of the fashion press to take on the sleaze in the industry.

"If you were the fashion editor of The Times you would see your role as writing about major changes in the fashion industry, about designers and about new clothes. You wouldn't see it as investigating model agencies. And I'm uncensorious myself. I wonder if fashion is any sleazier than journalism."

One senior fashion journalist on a national newspaper, who, wishing to retain some friends, asked not to be named, said the nub of the problem was that far too many of her peers lacked newsroom experience.

"These girls are not properly trained reporters," she said. "They start off as somebody's assistant, calling in clothes, and more than with most industries they work hand in glove with the PRs."

The Independent's Susannah Frankel is a respected fashion editor, who has held the same job on The Guardian. She wrote that the MacIntyre Undercover investigation was overblown - but is the only broadsheet fashion editor to have commented on the story. She believes that fashion journalists are in a near-impossible position here.

"If you took a moral stance about fashion, then you could not continue in the job," she says. "It's elitist. It's fascistic. It's exploitative. And it thrives on being all those things.

"It's often hard to tell the whole truth, if you want access to the designers and the models. The fashion industry hates the media, and that's partly the media's fault because of the uninformed way in which they target fashion - targeting specific people, victimising the victims. Once a year the media gets hysterical with an anorexia or drugs scandal. But it is a bigger problem than just fashion. What about advertising and Hollywood? The real problem is a deeper one, that of the glamorisation of decadence."

And the problem for newspapers is how to balance a properly journalistic approach with close collaboration when you're dealing with an industry whose coverage has ballooned in recent years, alongside an explosion in fashion advertising.

Of course, it would be easier if newspapers and editors acted in concert, blacklisting designers who banned unfavourable reviewers; but there's precious little chance of that.

It's also true that there are people working on newspapers - fashion journalists, arts reviewers and so forth - who do not have a traditional newsroom training, and are uncomfortable when they stumble across people and situations worthy of investigation.

But, whatever the problems, MacIntyre went into an industry that seems to frighten investigative reporters, who are more comfortable and more familiar with politics and business stories. And he has come up against a media sorority unwilling to lend him support.

They are wrong. In the case of the Elite model agency story, one aspect sets it apart: 14-year-olds, for all that they want to be the next Kate Moss, are children. And the sexual exploitation of children usually and rightly provokes newspapers into indignation and calls for resignations and even criminal proceedings. The sleaze merchants in the fashion industry should not be treated differently just because they have a generous advertising budget.