Hack attack: Are the tabloids out of control?

Tabloid hacks do not tend to be nice people," concludes Sharon Marshall in her insider's account of the popular press, Tabloid Girl, in which she recounts her experiences of working for the News of the World, The Sun and other red tops.

In the newly published book, she reveals what she regards as the tricks of the trade. There was the "dull pastel" frock and "unremarkable hat" for sneaking into weddings as an uninvited guest, usually in the guise of "a friend of the bride's 'from WeightWatchers'". There was the "natty waitress outfit" for crashing showbiz ceremonies. Marshall never dressed for the "old white-coat stunt" of pretending to be a doctor, but she knew colleagues who did. She admits to trying to scale six-foot fences to steal a copy of a new book. And when she conducted interviews, she would often pretend to need a toilet break, making a show of switching off her tape recorder while she left the room, but leaving a second recorder running in her handbag. "It's a great way of getting an unexpected exclusive," she writes in the book, which carries the strapline: "Sex. Scandal. Celebrities. All in a Day's Work."

Meanwhile, Andy Coulson, the Conservative Party's director of communications, prepares to speak to Scotland Yard detectives on what he knew about the illegal hacking of mobile phones taking place at the News of the World when he was editing the newspaper. Coulson previously assured a parliamentary committee that he had no knowledge of the hacking being undertaken by its royal editor, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who was being paid £100,000 a year by the tabloid. Both Goodman and Mulcaire were jailed in 2007 and Coulson resigned, while admitting nothing. Last week, The New York Times published claims by Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter, that he was "actively encouraged" to hack phones by Coulson.

The Tory spin doctor and his former fellow executives at News International told MPs that there was no culture of phone-hacking at the newspaper. Yet Marshall, now a television entertainment journalist, writes that: "Every journalist who has ever worked on any tabloid will know exactly how to do it and which codes you use."

So just how out of control is Britain's tabloid press? Phil Hall, himself a former editor of the News of the World now working in public relations, has been shocked by the tactics still being used. "I have examples of clients exposed for their pronouncements on Twitter and they don't even have an account. They are fake Twitter accounts and journalists just assume that this must be the celebrity and they are taking stories from them. It's just staggering," he says.

False tabloid stories become part of the national debate, he says. "I had a well-known client who was allegedly appearing in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me out of Here! It was totally untrue. She then had six different columnists slaughtering her for going on the programme, saying it was inappropriate. She was criticised for doing something she wasn't even doing in the first place." As circulations and staffing levels have fallen, more corners are being cut, Hall suggests. "I think the proprietors have cut off resources to the editors and left them with less staff and less resources to commit to getting major investigations done."

Another leading celebrity PR, Julian Henry, suggests that, in spite of the current furore over mobile phone messages, newer methods are being deployed to gain access to private information. "These days, private internet accounts are being hacked into. This is what we hear about from clients and people I'm connected with. Presumably it's similar [investigators] doing it but this time they will be further away from the newspapers and there will be more middlemen."

How did we get to this, 21 years after the Tory minister David Mellor so famously warned Britain's rampant tabloids that their methods were so unethical that they were "drinking in the last-chance saloon"? Within three years, Mellor, the so-called Minister for Fun, was unceremoniously brought down by the red tops, as his affair with an actress was exposed by The People, which secretly recorded her phone calls from the flat below, with the consent of the landlord.

"There was nothing illegal about that and we had to be very careful," says Bill Hagerty, the editor of The People at the time. "Whatever the public may think, it's in the nature of press work to cut corners sometimes. In the end, the argument comes down to public interest – it always does." Now the editor of the British Journalism Review, Hagerty accepts that modern tabloids contend with tighter legal restraints resulting from human rights legislation and the use of super-injunctions to prevent publication.

According to Hall, famous clients are turning to this "nuclear option" of the super-injunction because of a fundamental breakdown in trust of the tabloids. He says the popular press faces being disconnected from the stars on whom it depends for copy. "People used to get interviews with movie stars. It just doesn't happen now, because they got very wary of how their interviews were being treated. Most of them have publicists almost as a guard and you only get round-table interviews at the time of the movie, when they are telling everybody the same thing." A similar process is taking hold among top British sports stars. "More and more, the guys are saying, 'I don't want to have conversations with them, they are constantly sniping at me, attacking me for every move I make, so why am I going to sit down and do interviews with them on a friendly basis?'"

But Matthew Wright, a former reporter on The Sun and the Daily Mirror who now presents The Wright Stuff on Channel Five, blames the growth of the PR industry for creating a situation where he was "beaten with sticks to come up with absolutely extraordinary and sensational stories to titillate and captivate the readers". He says: "You can correlate the rise in the power of PR with an increased pressure on journalists to get results. The PRs were turning everything anodyne, controlling everything and killing the very product that was suiting both them and the newspapers by reducing the stars to sounding like dullards."

Wright claims that the PR industry now has the cash-strapped tabloids in its pocket. "PRs are working much more hand in glove with journalists; there doesn't seem to be anywhere near the pressure on the showbiz reporters to generate original and sensational material," he says. "It's all controlled, it's all quite bland." Julian Henry concurs, saying that American publicists no longer live in fear of British tabloids. "From America, the British press is seen as being locked down. There's a collaborative and cosy atmosphere that is prevalent today between the entertainment power brokers and the newspapers, which are totally reliant on access to sell copies of their papers."

Such a state of affairs places even greater pressure on those tabloid reporters who cannot play the access game with the diminishing pool of genuine celebrities still willing to talk to the press. At the same time, the internet and Big Brother-style television shows have transformed public notions of personal privacy.

John Lloyd, the director of journalism at Oxford University's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, believes the walls between what are considered private and public matters are "very rapidly disappearing" in the media as a whole, citing recent stories surrounding the sexuality of David Laws and William Hague. "What would earlier have been regarded as something which people in the know knew but would not say is now a staple," he says, adding that the French and Italian press is also becoming more "tabloid" in its tastes. "Those journalistic cultures which attempted to keep a wall between the private and the public have seen that wall break down under the sheer pressure of public demand. That is the important thing – people like scandal. Tabloid culture is now much more generally newspaper or journalistic culture."

Time has not yet been called at the last-chance saloon but the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is under renewed pressure to rein in the tabloids. The PCC's director, Stephen Abell, while conceding there is more to do, argues much has changed and that the red tops are anxious to play by the rules. "What we see is an awful lot of photographs and pieces of information that are not published because of concerns about the PCC code," he says.

Dominic Ponsford, the editor of the trade magazine Press Gazette, agrees that tabloid tactics are less unsavoury than they once were. "If you look at the Eighties, tabloid journalists used to do really terrible things in terms of invasion of privacy and seriously making things up." The PCC and the attitude of the courts towards privacy and libel have curbed some excesses, he says, not to mention the jailing of Goodman and Mulcaire.

What he can't quite understand is how techniques illegally deployed by that pair could have been unknown to the editor who published their stories. "Mulcaire was paid £100,000 a year. Even with a budget as high as the News of the World's, I would think that as an editor you would want to know what that was being spent on." Wright, who like Coulson cut his teeth as an editor of The Sun's showbiz column, Bizarre, is similarly perplexed. "I do find it intriguing that an editor regularly writing out big-money cheques to a bloke, presumably on a month-by-month basis, would have no idea or no desire to find out who this bloke was and what he was doing for them."

Would Coulson's hacks – or those working for other tabloid editors – have told the truth about how they got their scoops? In a shrinking, PR-controlled and under-resourced but still feverishly competitive sector, maybe not. "They have to get the story. They have to save their job," Marshall writes. "If they don't do it, someone else in the industry will. The other person will get the story and the glory. You will get your P45."

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