Becks, sex and the journalists' game of humbug

The dark - and unconvincing - art of recycling tabloid claims about celebrities as an 'issue' is now part of virtually all media
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The Independent Online

For the second successive week football and politics have competed for dominance of the news. First it was Sven Goran furtively visiting Peter Kenyon, the Chelsea MD, and The Sun publishing those murky long lens pictures to confirm that the England coach was managerially playing away. The immigration crisis for the Government pushed that story to one side, but only after the Swede had purged his apparent promiscuity by extending his England contract for even more money.

But football wasn't going to return meekly to the sports pages just because some minister called Bev had resigned. No, The Sun's Sunday counterpart, the News of the World, had other ideas, and brought us the aptly named Miss Loos, who had allegedly (a word that was to suffer from extreme over-use as the week progressed) spent precious moments with David Beckham, the patron saint of family life, in a Madrid hotel room. The mobile telephone, it was suggested, with transcripts of texts, was the favoured medium for thank-you letters.

More murky long lens photographs followed, and of course every popular newspaper, and a few more upmarket titles, moved in on the story, until some were checked by the worsening situation in Iraq. Industry sources suggest the News of the World increased its sale by about 100,000 on the day of the Beckham exclusive, and that The Sun and Mirror put on about three per cent the next day. We disapprove but we buy and read, although there may be some who are ill-informed about the "sleazy señorita" because their newspaper does not have pages of intimate allegations concerning the perfect, or perfectly marketed, marriage of our time.

As ever the sniffy, the lofty, the tasteful, those who consider low circulation to be a mark of quality, those who think Posh and Beck are Pop Idol presenters (or would if they knew what Pop Idol was), all got into a state about what they should do.

When I was news editor at The Guardian, long ago, the then editor, Peter Preston, had a theory about popular news and serious newspapers. When he emerged from his office, and we on the newsdesk were sitting around discussing the rehabilitation of offenders, adoption, childcare and gay rights, he would look at the large number of reporters surrounding the television set in the corner and remark, "Another story unlikely to be in The Guardian tomorrow." It was usually a royal scandal. The paper's staff were fascinated, but did not think the readers would also be gripped.

Times have changed, and the news agendas of the tabloids and the more serious newspapers overlap more than they once did. Popular culture, celebrity, football and other sports stars, reality television and soaps are as likely to feature in The Times or The Daily Telegraph, as in The Sun or News of the World.

Sexual scandal, however, still causes the upmarket titles problems. These newspapers do not have the contacts or chequebooks to acquire or follow up these stories. They are thus left repeating them (carefully, for they could never defend them), writing stories about the story, or - the BBC's approach - running stories beginning, "The debate about a privacy law will be reopened by ..." and then recapping the highlights of the latest scandal.

Humbug, humbug all around. Personally I feel no sympathy for the Beckhams. It is not so long ago that they went on a world tour to market themselves, and they never stopped. I find the alleged sexploits neither surprising nor unsurprising, if they happened. I find the Champions' League results more interesting than the "sext" messages. And I like the idea of a country like Spain, where Beckham playing fast and Loos was paid very little heed in the press.

This month's newspaper circulation figures show a settling down of the compact wars and a fair amount of gloom in the market. Editors and circulation managers tend to choose the figure bringing the best news for their particular title. This might be the improvement since last month, or the improvement on the same month last year, or the figure for a six-month period compared with the same one the previous year. Nothing is especially good this month.

I tend to look most carefully at the six-month figures, because there can be blips from one month to the next, or special factors, such as a particularly big story, distorting the comparison with the same month last year. A dramatic new factor in the market place, like the progressive rolling out across the country of the small format Times and Independent, makes the month-on-month figures significant and interesting. So does the comparison of a time when there were no compacts with the present new world.

In the so-called quality sector, the comparison of this March with March 2003 shows that the only titles up are the two that have introduced compact editions: The Independent by 15.3 per cent, The Times by 0.5 per cent. In the six-month period October to March, only The Independent is up, by 11 per cent. The small format has worked for that newspaper, but The Times figures show that format alone does not transform sales.

No sector of the market seems more resistant to the decline than another, though the most spectacular sales losses come from two papers in the same stable and the same red-top sector of the market. The Daily Mirror sale is down 7.2 per cent and The People's sale on a Sunday is down 8.8 per cent. Problems for Trinity Mirror. And since both these titles are tabloids, there is no format solution available.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

MEDIA DIARY

Torygraph tremors

"The Standard has exciting new plans for the next few months," said the Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley (pictured right), after announcing that 12 editorial staff were not to be part of those plans (as in "You're sacked. Ed"). But friends say that the Benenden-educated Wadley has even more exciting plans for herself. "She just has to wait until her ultimate boss, Lord Rothermere, buys the Telegraph group," I'm told, "and then she expects to be editor of The Daily Telegraph, where she was once a deputy editor. "News that will surely do wonders for morale at the "Torygraph".

Root of Neil's problem

The Barclay twins' representative on earth, Andrew Neil, made several appearances in Jeff Randall's excellent BBC2 documentary on Conrad Black on Tuesday, fulminating against the disgraced tycoon. The rant continued in Neil's Evening Standard media column the next day. What is the explanation for such bile, given that the programme revealed how his reclusive masters were on to a rather good deal when Black offered them The Telegraph? Could it be that Neil is still peeved that the Barclays never took him into their confidence about the offer in the first place?

Pulitzer prize fighters

Is a car reviewer a critic? That's the argument splitting American journalism after Dan Neil, the LA Times's answer to Jeremy Clarkson, won a Pulitzer for critic of the year. "If you write about cars, it's reportage," huffed John Simon, theatre reviewer at New York Magazine. Neil, who once called an Acura sedan "Botox for the brain box", is unapologetic. "Cars are an objet d'art," he says.

Never missed a deadline

The dangers of editors spending a little too much time in the office became apparent last week. The editor of the Colfax Record in Calfornia, one A Thomas Homer, was frequently at his desk long before his colleagues showed up and long after they'd left. So when the janitor and a cleaner saw him lying on the floor of his office last weekend, they assumed he was merely taking a nap during yet another stint of overtime.

Not so; the poor chap was dead. Thus does a dedicated man pass into newspaper legend as "the editor who died and no one noticed for two days".

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