TMZ: The website striking fear into Hollywood's stars

As Christian Bale found last week, no celebrity is safe from the attentions of the trashy showbiz site

When Christian Bale unleashed a four-minute foul-mouthed rant at an unfortunate crew member on the set of the new Terminator movie last summer, he may have thought that what happened on set would stay on set. Someone, however, recorded it, and somehow – no one quite knows how – the audio file turned up last week on the website TMZ, launching a download frenzy that has seen the recording spread around the globe, and spawning dozens of spoofs and parodies.

So it goes, in the exuberant and voyeuristic world of TMZ, a Los Angeles website founded on the principle that no detail of a famous person's daily existence, from Britney visiting Starbucks to Paris picking her nose, is too boring or tasteless to satisfy a prurient, celebrity-obsessed public.

In the three years since it was founded, TMZ (pronounced "tee-em-zee" – the name is taken from "thirty mile zone", a film industry term referring to the area around Hollywood) has become America's most influential purveyor of showbiz tittle-tattle. It sits third in the league of most-visited celebrity websites (behind and Yahoo's OMG), has spawned a prime-time TV show, and is one of Time magazine's "25 websites we can't live without".

Its modus operandi is gloriously lowbrow: every hour or so, the site posts either a breaking news story, traditional paparazzi shots, revelatory documents or footage from one of its video cameramen who patrol the streets of Los Angeles, attempting to cajole passing stars into conversation.

Sometimes, amid endless videos of feral photographers harassing C-list celebrities, the site will distinguish itself by stumbling upon a genuine exclusive. Last week brought two cases in point: first, on Tuesday, came the Christian Bale audio file; then, the following day, TMZ received a private photograph of the "tween" sensation Miley Cyrus posing with a group of friends who were pulling "slitty-eyed" faces that were seen – by furious race relations groups, at least – to be an attempt to make fun of an Asian member of their group.

Both scalps represented notable additions to the trophy room of TMZ, which was founded in November 2005 by AOL and Warner Bros to harness the internet's then-untapped potential to break stories at breakneck speed. The site's leading creative force is Harvey Levin, a boisterous, camp and slightly seedy former lawyer and TV show-business reporter.

Two factors have driven TMZ's early success. The first is the involvement of AOL, which uses its search engines to drive traffic towards the website. The second is Levin's uncanny knack of getting his hands on prurient information that can be swiftly slapped on to the site. In July 2006, TMZ gained international attention when it obtained a police report regarding Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade at officers who arrested him for drink-driving. The following month, it published a copy of the birth certificate of Katie Holmes's and Tom Cruise's new daughter, Suri.

Levin is loved and loathed in roughly equal measure. To supporters, he's a maverick. "We don't do junkets. And ultimately publicists don't control us the way they control the traditional media," he once said. Yet to opponents, he's the commander in chief of a Wild West paparazzi gang that harasses celebrities in an effort to "create" a story without a sense of responsibility.

Meanwhile Levin's TV show, filmed at the TMZ office, is a monument to the dumbing down of the airwaves, revelling in the trashiness and intellectual bankruptcy of its unashamedly idiotic editorial staff.

"Levin approaches his job with the sanctimoniousness of a former political prisoner," Alec Baldwin wrote in his recent memoir. "He leads a cadre of self-satisfied twentysomethings who jump like rats from public relations sinking ship to sinking ship, offering ever fresher takes on Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and every other unfortunate soul who has the bad luck and/or awful judgement to walk, sometimes willingly, into the cesspool of modern American media."

TMZ's greatest hits

17 May 2006 Oil heir Brandon Davis spends four minutes telling TMZ why his ex-girlfriend Lindsay Lohan has the nickname "firecrotch".

28 July 2006 Mel Gibson is arrested for drink-driving in Malibu. TMZ publishes a police report detailing Gibson's anti-Semitic and sexist comments to the arresting officers.

20 Nov 2006 'Seinfeld' star Michael Richards launches a bizarre racist rant at a heckler in a comedy club. TMZ shows mobile phone footage.

11 Feb 2007 Shortly after Anna Nicole Smith's death, TMZ publishes images of the so-called "death fridge" at the scene, stocked with methadone and SlimFast.

17 Feb 2007 Britney Spears shaves her head. TMZ publishes the first pictures. Five days later, it shows Britney re-entering rehab.

19 April 2007 An abusive answer-phone message that Alec Baldwin left his daughter, 11, during a custody battle is broadcast by TMZ.