MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Hugh Grant is not the only person to have gone 'completely insane' recently; in seven days that shook the world of quality newspapers, the nation's broadsheet editors fell victim to advanced tabloiditis
Sunday 09 July 1995
Much of this occurred where you would expect, in the tabloids. The Daily Mail revealed in endless detail how "Hugh Grant's glittering career faced shameful ruin"; the London Evening Standard ran front page stories on Grant for three consecutive days; the Sun was in seventh heaven. Editors saw plenty of reasons for such behaviour: Grant's misdemeanour was fascinatingly filthy; he and his wronged girlfriend, Liz Hurley, were fascinatingly posh; their media-burnished relationship was riding for a fall; the weather was suddenly feverish; and it was a lot more fun than speculation about the Tory leadership campaign.
What was more unexpected was that the broadsheets - the supposedly serious, quality press - also went berserk and, for seven frenzied days, filled column inch after column inch with innuendo, speculation and analysis of every possible aspect of Grant's behaviour. Why had they decided that such a story justified so much coverage? Professor Hugh Stephenson, the head of City University's journalism department, offers the obvious explanation: "Broadsheet readers are as interested in sex and prostitutes as anyone else." True; and the increasing attention paid to popular culture in academia has given celebrity a certain quasi-intellectual respectability.
Yet Grant's week of broadsheet exposure also indicated a fundamental change in quality newspapers: their final transformation into what Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger recently called the "broadloid" - a new hybrid which wraps up the cheerful (gossip, sleaze) and the cerebral (politics, economics) in the same multi-sectioned package, thus - editors hope - interesting more readers in more ways. Some populist broadsheets had been moving in this direction for years. The Daily Telegraph had its saucy page three crime stories, and Andrew Neil's Sunday Times constantly sought "the Tatler factor", the seductive mix of publicity-seeking aristocracy, Hollywood celebrity, crime and conspicuous consumption that Tina Brown perfected as editor of that magazine and of Vanity Fair. It is a mix that is made for glossy magazines; whether it should be the stuff of newspapers of record is a different matter. For the moment, however, the newspaper price war seems to have made the broadloid mix compulsory. And, as Claire Myerscough, an analyst at advertising brokers Zenith Media, says: "These papers are attracting people who haven't historically read a quality" - readers from the middle of the newspaper market, where the Daily Mail's careful blend of the sensational and the stolid has been making a rare fortune, and attracting envy from more upmarket papers, for years. The quality press has been happy to meet these readers' expectations; many of the editors installed on broadsheets since the price war began have sensed that, over the last decade, the journalistic initiative has been with the tabloids. And, ever since Kelvin MacKenzie's famous jibe that, while his Sun journalists could produce the Guardian with their hands tied behind their backs, Guardian journalists could never hope to produce the Sun, the bright young things of the quality press have been tempted by the challenge of a bit of rough.
There are dangers in this. "As you get more downmarket, the readership quickly gets to be of less value to advertisers," says Myerscough. At the same time, you risk alienating your original readers by being too tacky. There's been no tide of angry letters to the Times yet, but there might be if it started buying up prostitutes on Sunset Boulevard - the Times's sister paper, the News of the World, paid an estimated pounds 100,000 to Divine Brown, the prostitute with whom Grant was caught, for her story, and sold an extra 150,000 copies on the strength of it. The qualities still balk at such naked chequebook journalism - not least because they can't afford it. "Broadsheets can't compete with tabloids in that kind of news-gathering," says Dominic Mills of the trade paper Campaign, "so by default they're forced into cod Clare Rayner stuff." But, of course, once readers' appetites are aroused they may tire of mere analysis of motives and morality, regardless of all the clever recipes a broadsheet features department can use to serve it up, and slaver after the story's raw meat, as provided by the tabloid butchers.
Perhaps the Financial Times (six lines of Grant coverage) was right to judge that the broadsheets could never win. Then again, the week of frenzied effort by those which tried, as anatomised here (and measured for enthusiasm and competence by our Grantometer), was probably valuable experience for the broadloids. Especially if they're to cover Grant's LA court appearance properly next month.
Total column inches: 229 (for the seven days after the story broke).
Total stories: Seven. Started strongly the first day with a blunt three- picture front page that mentioned "oral sex" in the third paragraph, then moved with postmodern alacrity to the story-of-the-story on day three, describing tabloid hacks pinning up wanted posters for Divine Brown on Sunset Boulevard (but not saying that they were from the Times's sister paper, the Sun).
Photographs: 12. Good on Liz Hurley looking distressed in various expensive high-cut outfits, but missed the long-lens close-up of Grant and Hurley's lunchtime summit on Friday: readers had to be content with an aerial shot of their farmhouse, more self-referential pics of watching hacks, and some intriguing captions ("Grant did the talking", "Hurley carried the salad").
Headlines: no puns please, we're British.
Pseudo-analysis: cleverly prurient, repeating "wild speculation" about Brown being a man in drag and going over old sex scandals involving Roman Polanski and Fatty Arbuckle in the name of historical context. Some blatant melodrama too: "What Hugh Grant sought in the early hours of Tuesday morning was a kind of quick, dark, utterly anonymous gratification..."
Scoop: discovering that Hurley's beloved alsatian "was rescued from a life of abuse in America", while Grant prefers cats.
Low point: bothering to tell us that Hurley likes to read Enid Blyton in times of crisis.
Editorial bias: pro-Hurley ("I Am Bewildered And Alone", "Estee Lauder To Stand By Hurley").
Grantometer reading (1 to 10): 7.
Total column inches: 536.
Total stories: 16. Huge front pages two days and four days after the event, the latter a long-lens-led story on Grant and Hurley's lunch that wouldn't have disgraced the Sun on one of its more mischievous days.
Photographs: 16. The lunch one was the best - Hugh chewing his nails like a schoolboy being dressed down, Liz rubbing her brow and waving a fag, neither looking at the other - but we got plenty of reminders of his mugshot, too. And a saucy one of that dress, leaning over.
Headlines: cheeky puns to make Viz chortle - "Four Wheels And His Own Funeral?"; "Hugh's A Naughty Boy"; and, on its first front page report, "Prostitute Delivers A Blow To Hugh Grant's Image".
Pseudo-analysis: an extensive revel in the complexities of modern fame and sexuality. Included: cerebral musings on the nature of stardom ("a state of permanent disorder, so even the most bizarre acts can seem as if you are exerting control"); thoughts on how Hugh can adopt American traditions of redemption ("follow up with an interview in Vanity Fair"); leader page piece from famous brothel-keeper Cynthia Payne; advice from Max Clifford; and the coining of "Hurleyism" as "the quasi- religious belief that celebrity is a moral absolute", immediately below a leader on French oppression in Tahiti.
Scoop: Hello!-style minutiae of Hurley leaving her hotel that took up half of the front page.
Low point: blatant recycling of Divine Brown's first-hand account of the Grant incident in the previous day's News Of The World.
Editorial bias: thinly-veiled contempt for both Grant and Hurley, but a surprisingly primal defence of Grant from David Aaronovitch: "Men are an easy lay... This is not an excuse for male misbehaviour - it is a plea for realism."
Grantometer reading: 9.
Total column inches: 482.
Total stories: 13. Three on the front page, including a detailed-but- prudish lead on the day the story broke; three "analysis" pieces following on within 24 hours, including a long comment page speculation on Grant's motives (placed right alongside an attack by right-wing hardman Simon Heffer on John Major).
Photographs: 19. Blown up front-page mugshots of a sheepish Grant and pouting Brown the day the story broke; a sprawling cleavage shot of Hurley across the comment pages the same day; nice snap of second double bed arriving at the couple's country home on Grant's return.
Headlines: innuendo-free ("Hugh Grant On Prostitute Charge").
Pseudo-analysis: unashamed; eg: "Without knowing Grant's motivations it is easier to guess at what has been offered him since the success of Four Weddings and a Funeral. I should think it is just about everything" (Lesley Garner). Also sound advice from venerable columnist WF Deedes: "When seized with this sort of madness... I found it best - and safest - to get politely drunk."
Scoop: running, on day one, Grant's admissions (subsequently copied by most other papers) that "I have always found strangers sexy" and that "Liz stopped fancying me years ago... She encourages the myth now because I'm her product."
Low point: Irony-free use of the language of political crisis: "Elizabeth Hurley's future with Hugh Grant remained in doubt last night after she said she had made 'no decision' about their relationship."
Editorial bias: initially favouring Grant ("Hard though it is for women to understand, men have never been held back..."), but then a strong swing to Hurley (sad photo of her walking her dog alone, "all pain and no pleasure in her face") - unsurprising for the heavily female-read Hurleygraph.
Grantometer reading: 8.
Total column inches: 505.
Total stories: 14 - showing that the traditional Left are no slouches on matters of tabloid importance. When the news broke it had its American scandal specialist (Ian Katz) and its tabloid G2 section ready; the rest was all-angles efficiency, from dirty details of the hack scrap for Brown's story to Suzanne Moore's well-stated disgust for the whole circus.
Photographs: Eight. Disappointingly small and unoriginal archive and press-crowd shots; the pictures of John Redwood were better.
Headlines: "Oh Hugh... How Could You?", and a caring and compassionate: "Gee, If You Wanna Talk About It, Hugh".
Pseudo-analysis: creepy quasi-celebrities do the paper's speculation for it (Max Clifford: "in terms of public relations opportunities, this is wonderful"; Jilly Cooper: "the poor boy"). Then carefully ironic spoof columnist Bel Littlejohn runs rings round the horrified Guardian purists by arguing that the paper hasn't done enough on Hugh.
Scoop: the revelation (copied from the Mirror) that the condom Grant used was mint-flavoured.
Low point: a front page quote from Grant that Hurley "has the best boobs in London".
Editorial bias: pro-Grant, by default - since Hurley didn't do anything she doesn't get discussed (although that never stopped them before).
Grantometer reading: 8.
Total column inches: 247 - not bad for one day, and rather more than most subjects are deemed to merit in the modern Sunday Times.
Total stories: four, including the lead in the "News Review" section - a wandering epic by Tom Shone (who once wrote that Hurley rubbed his ankle under a restaurant table). His story is a mixture of the piquant ("the Grant scandal is gossip in its most irrelevant and therefore purest form") and the reheated ("he is Britain's crown prince of cringe"); the others are just hot air.
Photographs: six. Mugshots, another dress, the lunch, the dog walk - the usual suspects.
Headlines: biblical/hubris ("Divine Retribution?") or bizarre/sexist ("Feasting With Panthers: It Was Ever The Gentleman's Relish").
Pseudo-analysis: lots of gleeful schadenfreude from Shone; rather more elaborate angle from the elaborately named Simon Sebag-Montefiore: "He is indeed the genuine Victorian gentleman... icily beautiful wife, the mannerisms of an old-fashioned toff... goes out after formal dinner-parties to pick up a streetwalker who stinks of cigarettes, old underwear and other men's breath..."
Scoop: Sebag-Montefiore's revelation that Viscount Bolingbroke's ministry began in 1710 with whores dancing in anticipation of his custom.
Low point: Jonathan Ross's joke: "pounds 65? She must have seen him coming."
Editorial bias: in effect, pro-Hurley - Grant gets dissected while she escapes (maybe Shone hasn't washed that ankle).
Grantometer reading: 9.
Total column inches: 180.
Total stories: six - in case readers felt short-changed by its sister daily's coverage. Cinematic front-page taster ("Her shoulders were hunched and she stared straight ahead into the distance. Within minutes, the silver Mercedes had left the property..."), followed by thick layers of celebrity fluff ("Elizabeth Hurley is the most popular British sex symbol since Barbara Windsor") and LA spice ("this erotic Via Dolorosa that is Sunset east of Fairfax").
Photographs: four. Strong again: Hurley standing over a cowed Grant, hands on hips, at the lunch summit; Grant looking multi-chinned and louche with his tie pulled down at a film launch.
Headlines: the expected LA sleaze for English suburbs ("LA's Sordid Backstreets Are Last Chance Saloon For Sex"), plus unexpected wit ("Whore The Merrier").
Pseudo-analysis: recycled fawning from professional Hurley watcher Toby Young ("They have the kind of media wattage that can light up a banqueting hall"); "the nation's views" as represented by such citizens as Michael Winner; and, best of all, a Barthes-style meta- explanation of Grant's behaviour from Mary Kenny in the shape of 25 "excuses" (eg, "self-abandon is self-forgetting").
Scoop: the revelation that the Times received a fax from the LAPD press office within 33 minutes of Grant's being caught.
Low point: Anita Brookner being dragged in to comment ("I feel very sorry for both of them").
Editorial bias: none; both parties left looking pathetic, him "forlorn", her a mere "make-up model".
Grantometer reading: 10 - perfect fit between medium and message.
Total column inches: 52.
Total stories: just one - what do these editors think they're doing? - albeit melodramatic ("Today Hugh Grant is quite alone") and speculative enough ("after what seemed to be a failed attempt to kiss and make up") to keep readers away from the News Of The World.
Photographs: three - if in doubt, run the mugshots. And a picture of Hurley in a clinging dress, even if she is looking daggers.
Headline: apocalyptic - "Exit Hurley, Leaving Leading Man To Face Divine Judgement All Alone".
Pseudo-analysis: all the week's hot air compressed to this near-haiku: "It is hard to say whether Grant will survive."
Scoop: getting an Estee Lauder source to admit, "It is generally felt here that it would be better if Liz kept her distance, at least publicly, from Hugh."
Low point: misspelling the name of Grant's next British film release (An Englihshman [sic] Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain).
Editorial bias: favouring Hurley - praise for her "impeccable performance" since the scandal broke.
Grantometer reading: 5.
INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
Total column inches: a high-minded 37.
Total stories: three, led by an esoteric history of the word "lewd" (as in "an act of lewd conduct"), tracing its derivation back to early medieval clerics and its passage to America back to the Pilgrim Fathers.
No actual news report.
Photographs: one (that mugshot).
Headlines: tiny but populist ("If You Were Liz Would You Forgive Hugh?").
Pseudo-analysis: a "vox pop" column lets the public do the speculating - at no cost to the paper. Best line comes from Steve Parlanti, driving instructor: "She should find somebody else. I would be delighted if she knocked on my door. If she wanted driving lessons I'd be even more delighted."
Scoop: Ian Jack, formerly the paper's editor and now editor of Granta, reveals with sly self- promotion that Hurley reads Granta, "as a passionate fan of new writing from the Baltic republics".
Low point: no Hurley pictures.
Editorial bias: in favour of not covering stories like this. Grantometer reading: 4.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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