The man who made a monster
Scottish tabloid veteran Iain Calder used celebrity gossip, scandal and freak human interest by the shovelful to transform the `National Enquirer' into America's biggest-selling `newspaper'. Now the hard man is back in Britain to expand its UK edition. By Paul McCann
Monday 23 June 1997
Iain Calder, 58, editor emeritus of the world's premier scandal-sheet, the National Enquirer, even hails from the same Lanarkshire coalfields as Britain's greatest football manager, and after 30 years in America his accent has slipped into the same grizzly burr as the former Bond star.
Yet you know that Mr Calder did not become the millionaire head of America's best-selling "newspaper" thanks to a gentle nature and a way with words.
As a veteran of the famously dirty circulation war between the Scottish Daily Express and the Daily Record in the early Sixties, you get the feeling he wasn't overly scared when Charles Manson issued a death threat against him when he was editing the Enquirer.
Mr Calder was responsible for bringing British tabloid talents to the dowdy world of American journalism and helped to turn the National Enquirer into the monster that it is today. Its diet of celebrity gossip, scandal and freak human interest stories sells three million copies a week, read by around 18 million people.
When the paper was sold after the death of its owner, Gene Pope, in 1989, it was bought by its largest competitor - with Mr Calder getting a chunk - for $412m (pounds 251m). Not bad, considering Mr Pope had bought the Enquirer in the Fifties for $75,000 (pounds 46,000).
Mr Calder is in the UK to promote the Enquirer's UK edition, which sells 100,000 copies a week - up 30 per cent in a year - without any marketing or advertising and little editorial changes to the US version. The Enquirer is about to switch its printing to the UK to enable it to come out on a Saturday and scoop the UK's Sunday tabloids, which have hitherto relied on it for many of their US-sourced stories.
The son of a factory hand, Iain Calder grew up in a mining village he describes as "truly dismal". "We were poor," he says, "but too stupid to know we were poor because everyone else was the same. Half the boys at my school went straight down the mines."
He got into journalism because when he left school at 16 he had been offered two jobs - one as a bank clerk and one as a reporter on the Falkirk Sentinel: "The reporter's job paid less, but my dad told me to take the bank clerk's job, which influenced me not to. The other reason I became a reporter was because I thought it would sound better when a girl at a dance asked you what you did."
Within a year he was freelancing for the big Scottish and London papers, and at the age of 21 was poached to join the Daily Record. "I was quaking - only three reporters in 30 years had made it to Glasgow."
He didn't quake for long. The circulation battle between the Daily Record and Scottish Daily Express in Glasgow in the early Sixties trained dozens of Scottish newspapermen in a type of macho rivalry that they would later use to dominate British newspapers for a generation. In one incident, a High Court judge summoned the two papers' editors and threatened to put them in jail after 60 reporters and staff from both titles converged on the High Court in Glasgow to try to sign up an exclusive with a local thug, Walter Scott Ellis, who had been acquitted of a murder. A riot ensued which saw policemen injured and a reporter's legs broken, and ended with Ellis being driven away in the Daily Record's car with an Express man hanging in the window trying to pull it over.
Skills were learnt in Glasgow that Calder took with him when he became a reporter for the Enquirer in London in 1964. At that time the Enquirer was an inky black-and-white paper that specialised in photographs of headless bodies and human interest stories.
Even Calder was shocked by the paper's love of "photo reconstructions": "Typical of the kind of things we did was this story about a little kid, a three-year-old, who had crawled out of a window along a ledge and on to a rooftop four stories up. She was being looked after by her seven- year-old brother and he had crawled out and brought her back in while people down below were watching.
"A day later our photographer had got us pictures of the little kid going out there on to the ledge and the brother saving her. I was a bit worried about this, and asked the photographer, a guy called Harry Edgington, how he got the shots. It turned out he paid the mother pounds 50 to send the kids back out on the ledge to do it again. Even I don't risk little babies' lives - but it made great pictures."
In 1967, Calder moved to America after Gene Pope "made me an offer I couldn't refuse". This is a phrase Calder uses advisedly. Pope was of Sicilian extraction and employed a man known as "Mr Fixit" on $1m a year to get certain things done.
When the Enquirer moved to Florida in 1971 Pope applied for "press plates" for his reporters' cars that would get them through police lines, as they were used to doing in New York. He was told that press plates didn't exist in Florida, so "Mr Fixit" was put on the job. Three weeks later, the Florida state legislature rushed through a law creating them.
Mr Fixit's connections were crucial to the development of the Enquirer in other ways, too. Pope wanted Calder to bring over British hacks who could turn the Enquirer into a TV-celebrity magazine sold in supermarkets. The supermarkets were essential because the Enquirer's blue-collar readership was moving out of the cities where its news-stands were.
With a staff 70 per cent British, the magazine's new incarnation was ready to roll, but the supermarket owners refused to allow the magazine near their check-outs. Mr Fixit arranged to have Nixon's vice-president, Spiro Agnew, address the supermarkets' annual conference. Agnew was later stripped of the vice-president's office for accepting bribes, but by then the Enquirer was a soaraway success, with a series of ghoulish imitators such as the World Weekly News and The Star.
Calder has been so steeped in the world of tabloid journalism for so long - and made so much money out of it - that he cannot comprehend that there are moral objections to his kind of work: namely that it contributed to the media circus that was the OJ trial and has led to a general dumbing- down of the American press and TV news shows.
"People want gossip," he says. "It is a human need. Once, they got scandal from their corner shopkeeper about the people in the street or village. Now they live in the suburbs and don't know their neighbours - so they gossip about TV stars, the people they know now."
He is agitated by the high-minded products of American journalism colleges who think they know best what people should be reading - one of the reasons why he thinks American newspapers have been in decline. "We trust people to elect a president, yet somehow we are saying they are not qualified to choose what newspaper they want," he says.
It's a fluent and familiar argument. The problem with it appears if you actually look at what kind of presidents a dumbed-down nation of gossip- junkies has been voting for
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