The Media Column: 'Entrapment is as vital to some reporters as once was a notebook'

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The Independent Online

Sort the fact from the fiction. First quote (one journalist talking about another): "The man was clearly an asshole but I am not a snob and if he's a Belfast tabloid oik, he'll know a lot of things I don't know and need to know." Second quote (addressed to two journalists): "You have zero imagination... so humanity is a mystery to you... the stink of your own spleen and bile - the pain you inflict - is a mystery to you. You people... I don't think you know what you do."

It's been another bad few days for the popular press.

The description of a fellow professional in the paragraph above was credited by Andrew Marr to the erudite Ian Hargreaves, following the new and subsequently short-term editor of The Independent's initial encounter with then Mirror Group boss David Montgomery. At the time Mirror Group Newspapers shared control of this newspaper with the current sole owners, Independent Newspapers, and, declares Marr in his coruscating new book, My Trade, Montgomery had a ruthless management style and wanted to own The Independent outright.

The attack on two hacks comes from a new play, Dumb Show, written by Joe Penhall. Penhall, a former local newspaper reporter, has no hesitation in biting the hand that once fed him. His loathing for the foot soldiers, rather than Hargreaves' contempt for a well-heeled general and the equally virulent dislike of Montgomery's lieutenant, Charlie Wilson, by Marr - another former Independent editor - is absolute.

Put them together and the book and play deliver a condemnation of sections of the press that an industry constantly ducking sniper fire could do without - and that's even before the inevitable works based on Lord Conrad Black's excesses tumble from the word processors.

Forget Montgomery for a moment, hard though this may be for those bruised by him. Dumb Show tells the story of a TV comedian entrapped by a girl reporter and her "investigations editor". They ply their victim with drink, con him into producing drugs and gift-wrap their exposé with hidden microphones and cameras. The comic, greedy and needy for something to fill his void of a life, is allotted his share of the author's disdain, but compared to the reporters he is Mother Teresa.

All popular journalists are not like this - Penhall never mentions the word "tabloid", but you can tell that his piranhas are not from the Financial Times. And, indeed, neither are all celebrities so venal, even if the names of one or two press gang-banged egotistical television performers spring to mind. But there can be no question that there are reporters cheerfully willing to stray into ethical no man's land in pursuit of a tacky story, or that entrapment has become as vital a part of their armoury as once was a notebook and readable shorthand.

"I love this job," says Penhall's investigations editor, sensing the kill. "Working up an 'act'. Learning lines. Remembering them. Getting, you know, butterflies... it's just like being an actor." Can the thrill of performance really be a motivation for the kind of unscrupulous hunting down and humiliation of celebrities that features in some of our newspapers, especially the Sunday red-tops? Are the hunters and the hunted much the same?

Or is it, as the same character claims, the belief that famous people are all fakes? "They're not special. They're pariahs." Envy, a generous salary and expenses, plus the often mistaken belief that the degrading of celebrities sells papers, adds up to a heady cocktail.

In an interview, Penhall advanced the theory that "there seems to be a tabloidisation of culture, whereby the love of the grotesque and the sadistic thrill of other people's trauma and embarrassment are becoming legitimate entertainment". One only has to watch half-an-hour of Big Brother to grasp his point.

Editors and executives responsible for unleashing journalists whose morality has been parked outside with the office car will argue that "the market" is responsible for such stories. Yet the papers that pursue celebrities, even when there is no vestige of public interest in the dirt they scrape from the bottom of their shoes, are mostly struggling. Chasing the worst of reality television down a blind alley has done nothing to solve the problem of slipping sales.

The truth is that the public gets the newspapers it deserves - and wants. If Penhall's condemnation of the red-tops, and the conduct of such industry leaders as those vilified by Marr and Hargreaves, honourable journalists both, doesn't say much for this branch of the media, it says even less for contemporary society.

'My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism' by Andrew Marr is published this month by Macmillan. 'Dumb Show' by Joe Penhall, opens at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000) tonight