Media: Sleazy, tasteless and proud of it

The Daily and Sunday Sport's blend of sex and schoolboy humour is a success story of tackiness over taste.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
They don't teach this on journalism courses. Nathan Jones, 19, was offered a job on the staff of a national newspaper after organising an orgy involving a page three girl and 20 of the paper's readers. Other unusual tasks for Jones included wrestling naked with a 20-stone lesbian, eating live maggots and lighting "a firework sticking out of a circus performer's bum".

At least, that's what Tony Livesey says in his book, Babes, Booze, Orgies and Aliens, published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Daily Sport. But you shouldn't necessarily believe it because Sport Newspapers - of which Livesey is editor and managing director - are famous for reporting that World War Two bombers were found on the moon and that aliens turned a British boy into a fish finger.

Like the papers themselves, the book looks tacky. Even Livesey's PR hides it when she enters Cafe Flo on St Martin's Lane - and she's probably wise to do so, because the cafe's female managerdescribes his paper as a "disgusting rag". But Livesey, 34, is unfazed. He's coped with worse, appearing on Have I Got News For You?, Newsnight, and Channel 4's Cutting Edge. "Everyone talks about that programme," he says. "We had a woman with giant breasts trampolining in the office." Channel 5 invited him to make a programme himself, about strange people round Britain. He turned it down.

Livsey became editor of Sunday Sport in 1993 after six years on the paper, and editor in chief of the group two years ago. He started in journalism on the Nelson Leader in Lancashire. After local press he went to work on Gulf News in the Middle East. He returned aged 22 and applied for a job as a sports reporter on the Sunday Sport. He claims he was given the job to replace a sports reporter fired for refusing to write that Elvis had been spotted at a football match. He claims to have done every job on the paper and last month became managing director of Sport Newspapers.

Livesey is the man who steered the Sport into profit after the regulator wiped pounds 5m off its ad revenue by banning 0898 sex lines. The Sport has never attracted mainstream advertisers - with the peculiar exception of IBM - but unlike others, has managed to survive without them. And it's relied largely on word-of-mouth for readers: the IBA wouldn't allow TV advertising at the paper's launch.

In his first year as editor, Livesey closed the London office (the headquarters are in Manchester), and boosted sales by 100,000 a week, a rise of 33 per cent. Since then - distasteful though it may be - the paper has become rather a success. Valued at pounds 150m, it sells 80 million copies a year. Profits this year were pounds 9m, on a turnover of just pounds 23m. Publisher David Sullivan is the 50th richest man in Britain, worth pounds 350m; and the Sport itself can claim to have influenced a whole generation of new titles: Loaded, Maxim and FHM.

What first took the Sunday Sport into profitable sales, in 1987, was the establishment of a "Big Breast Unit", which masterminded topless shots of an 18-year-old - apparently called Tina Small - whose chest measured 84 inches. She was succeeded by a traffic warden who "broke the legendary 100-inch barrier".

Inevitably, the paper has attracted much criticism from "feminists", "bleeding-heart liberals" and "gutless, politically correct ponces". In the book, Livesey pours contempt on such critics: "Perhaps these shortsighted people would be happier for page-three girls to abandon careers that can earn them up to pounds 1,000 a day and sell cigarettes instead?"

As arguments go, this is hardly watertight, but Livesey takes up the theme again over a plate of fried potato skins: "Feminists say we're exploiting women. Fifty per cent of the models earn more than me. Feminists are more sexist than me. They have fought for freedom, women doing what they want. What's wrong with looking at breasts?"

Perhaps I'm not the best person to ask. What does Livesey's female PR think? "I've no problem with what he says," she states. "I have been topless on holiday - but I have absolutely no intention of going topless here!"

To which Livesey replies: "And I respect you for that - but you have the choice." (Later on, Livesey hands me his mobile to speak to one of his colleagues, Millfield-educated Nick Cracknell, who rather lets the side down by crowing: "I used to be a journalist, but now I'm a pornographer!")

Suppose they're right. Suppose topless pics really aren't harmful. But what about the Sport's nastier stuff?

One of Livesey's predecessors, Drew Robertson, once wrote a column headed "Bollocks to the Press Council", after being criticised for using the words "sicko Chinks" in a piece about eating dogs in China. This was too much even for the Sport: Robertson was sacked.

The comedian Jo Brand once dared to criticise the paper and incurred an extraordinarily unkind revenge: Livesey dreamed up a competition based on the earlier "Kill Saddam and win a Metro". Readers were told: "We'll give you a grand if you've been down on Jo Brand."

"I have gone too far," Livesey concedes. One of his own ideas was to send a get-well message, concealed in a sausage, to 'Allo 'Allo actor Gordon Kaye, as he lay in hospital recovering from a terrible accident. This, says Livesey, instinctively reaching for superlatives, was "the greatest invasion of privacy in journalism", but it's clear he regrets the incident. "Lessons were learned. We are never doing that again. And after Diana [died], we never entered the auction for pictures."

What's more, he claims this week to have turned down topless pictures of Cherie Booth, and notified Downing Street. ("That's disgusting, she's a mother of two [sic].") Not that he's interested in sucking up to Blair. "I'm not a political animal, I'd rather that businessmen ran the country." Take note: businessmen, not journalists. As Livesey sees it, journalists should stick to entertainment.

Auberon Waugh, who has written approvingly about the Sport, wins his respect: "At first glance he's a pompous old tosser, but if you read what he says, he speaks a lot of sense." Kelvin MacKenzie? "An entertainer." John Pilger? "Bores me to tears." The Mirror comes in for similar criticism. "It's depressing. There's a new game in our office: how many times can The Mirror mention death in one issue?"

So is the Sport just a comic? "We have the news," he asserts. "You'll find Tony Adams and Bill Clinton. There is less news in the Daily Mail than in my paper. [The Mail's] all comment, opinions."

But news in the Sport could hardly be in-depth, because Livesey has only nine journalists. The founding editor, the late Mike Gabbert - a former deputy editor of the News of the World who claimed to have invented the word "bonk" - issued reporters with the following stern injunction: "No effing stories longer than 200 words."

But former Sport hacks now occupy important positions on major red-top tabloids, says Livesey. "The joke is that we are pilloried by many and scoffed at, but we are providing - if not the backbone of the industry - then at least its right arm."

`Babes, Booze, Orgies and Aliens' is published by Virgin on 17 September, at pounds 6.99