The poop on the scoop
Was 'Dianarama' really a such a hot story? Chris Horrie rounds up the all-time top ten
Tuesday 21 November 1995
The first scoop in British journalism is normally chalked up to John Wilkes, the 18th-century professional troublemaker. In 1763 Wilkes printed a leaked copy of the King's Speech in his paper, the North Briton. The paper sold like hot cakes, but Wilkes was sent to the Tower. He was let out after a court case which ruled that the monarch could not hang journalists just because they embarrassed him. Thanks to Wilkes, the Panorama team can relax. The Queen may be hopping mad, but she is not allowed to throw them in the dungeon and leave them to rot.
2. Henry Stanley meets Dr Livingstone
In 1869 the New York Herald sent the Welsh ex-merchant sailor to interview the British African explorer Dr David Livingstone. There was only one snag. Nobody knew where Livingstone was. And Stanley had the whole of Africa, still largely unmapped, to go at. Stanley's heroic needle-in- a-haystack job took two years. In November 1871 he found the doctor, laid up half dead in a mud hut on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. "We raised our hats," Stanley filed back to New York, "and I said, 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?' " (The present-day equivalent would involve sending a reporter into outer space to rescue a stranded astronaut. Unlikely, given the state of modern editorial budgets).
3. Emile Zola and the Dreyfus Case
Zola's investigation into the fate of army official Alfred Dreyfus was the scoop of 1890s Paris. Under one of the most famous banner headlines of all time, "J'ACCUSE!", L'Aurore revealed how Dreyfus, a Jew, had been framed by the anti-Semitic army high command as a spy, conveniently explaining away the army's humiliation in the 1870 war with Germany. The story led to Dreyfus's release from Devil's Island and eventually brought down the government.
4 The Zinoviev Letter
The most famous British spy scoop came during the 1924 general election in the form of the Zinoviev letter, a detailed (but largely fictional) set of instructions sent from Moscow ordering armed insurrection if the Labour Party won the election with a working majority. The Times printed the document four days before polling (with an accompanying editorial headlined "AT LAST THE TRUTH"). By the time the scam was exposed Labour had lost the election. The Zinoviev letter is one of dozens of hyped, but untrue scoops. Other colossal whoppers: the Hitler Diaries (Sunday Times); the Ronnie Biggs saga (Daily Express) and Martin Bormann discovered in South America (Daily Express, again).
5 The Profumo affair
The 1963 Profumo scandal was a collective Fleet Street scoop rather than a genuine exclusive belonging to one paper, though the News of the World made most of the running. The story was based on a supposed threat to the security of the realm: establishing that Defence Minister John Profumo had shared call girl Christine Keeler with a Russian military attache. The real attraction was the opportunity to trawl through the sex lives of the rich and powerful. A series of sex scoops and mini scoops followed, detailing kinkiness in high places. It has continued to this day.
6 Lord Lambton and the art of the "kiss 'n' tell"
In 1973 the News of the World exposed junior defence minister Lord Lambton's sexual peccadilloes. This time the scoop was the sole property of the paper. It had bought the details and (importantly) accompanying photographs from a call girl. Within a decade the tabloids were running regular auctions for off-the-peg call-girl scoops. Many of these kiss 'n' tells ended in libel disaster. The Sun's "ELTON'S KINKY KINKS", based on false material bought from a rent boy, cost the paper at least pounds 1m. It is reckoned to be the most expensive (untrue) scoop in newspaper history.
Harold Evans tried to turn the Sunday Times into a scoop factory during the 1970s with the launch of the Insight team. Insight is best remembered for breaking the Thalidomide scandal. The story remains the best example of the decade's craze for well funded investigative journalism. Harold Evans didn't survive the Murdoch takeover to of the Times. The craze is now at an end.
8 Watergate - the 'Washington Post'
The humdinger modern political scoop and the first since Zola to cause, in effect, the fall of a corrupt government. After the Watergate story broke, journalists were briefly portrayed in Hollywood films etc, as selfless heroes. The more familiar stereotype of the insensitive, cynical, hard-drinking mercenary was quickly re-established.
9 Freddie Star Ate My Hamster
The greatest tabloid story of recent years, this nonsense appeared in 1986 courtesy of Kelvin Mackenzie, editor of the Sun, and Max Clifford, the comic's PR minder. Clifford, who claims to provide more scoops than an ice-cream salesman, is one of an army of PR operators involved in the supply of celebrity "exclusives" to the tabloids.
10 Who Bombed Birmingham?
When the investigative journalism fad largely disappeared in the Seventies and Eighties it crossed over to TV and shows like World In Action. The old war-horse has had its fair share of scoops, including "Who Bombed Birmingham?", credited with helping to set the Birmingham Six free. And, oh yes, Panorama has had one or two as well.
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