Celebrity magazines were last night blamed for driving down standards in British tabloid newspapers and contributing to the climate that led to the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World.
Yesterday at Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into media standards, editors of three of the best known celebrity titles introduced the judge to their world. Presented with a copy of Heat, he commented: “It’s very different sort of journal to my normal [one].”
Heat’s editor Lucie Cave told the hearing that her magazine paid £200 to readers for “unposed” pictures of celebrities and defended her publication of shots of women accompanied by comments about their weight. She made no apology for using a picture of Simon Cowell aboard his private yacht. “We know from Simon Cowell, he kind of enjoys the lifestyle that goes with his celebrity and he’s clearly playing up to the paparazzi,” she said.
But some of Britain’s leading journalism schools yesterday expressed concern that the celebrity magazine sector did not provide a good ethical grounding for young media workers. Michael Williams, head of media ethics at the University of Central Lancashire’s School of Journalism, said that he had learned from some of the placements and jobs taken by his students that the more unscrupulous celebrity weeklies were using methods that lowered the standards of popular journalism. “They have undermined that traditional News of the World market and they often use techniques that newspapers would not use,” he said, accusing some titles of making up quotes.
Professor Tim Luckhurst, of the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism, agreed that the growth of the celebrity weeklies had been a factor in the decline of popular journalism. “One of the problems that the tabloids face is that the celebrity magazines have usurped their territory,” he said. “There’s some evidence that has contributed to pushing the tabloid newspapers to a more aggressive strategy of seeking to create and generate scandal stories rather than simply relaying the lifestyles of the rich and famous which used to be a major part of their diet in the 1960s and 1970s.”
The comments came as ITV this week announced The Exclusives, a reality television project with publishers Bauer Media in which young journalists will compete to win a contract on a stable of magazines that includes celebrity titles Heat, Closer and More.
According to an official report by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), journalists from Closer commissioned private investigator Steve Whittamore to conduct 22 searches on its behalf when the magazine was published by Emap. Questioned by The Independent last year on whether the magazine’s journalists had continued using Whittamore after his conviction for data protection offences in 2005, Bauer said that “any work commissioned from enquiry agents” was done within guidelines set down by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
Magazines from other publishers also used Whittamore, including the IPC titles Marie Claire and Woman’s Own and, above all, the National Magazine Company’s Best, which paid for 134 transactions commissioned by 20 journalists.
Leveson did not investigate magazine use of Whittamore but instead took evidence from OK! and Hello! magazines about the celebrities they featured. He heard that the magazines had a “consensual” relationship with their subjects, although OK! editor Lisa Byrne was forced to defend a cover story on the Duchess of Cambridge, which the inquiry suggested may have led some readers to believe the magazine had been granted an interview.
During recent years the distinctions between tabloid newspapers and popular magazines have blurred as journalists have moved between the two sectors. The growth of the celebrity weeklies has seen them hiring red-top reporters in the hope of landing more exclusives. When the News of the World set up its glossy magazine Fabulous (now with The Sun) it raided Closer for key appointments.
Most magazines fall within the remit of the PCC, although titles such as OK!, New! and Star are unregulated at the behest of owner Richard Desmond. Only 4.9% of the PCC’s investigated complaints relate to magazines although there is a suspicion at the PCC that readers are more likely to complain about newspaper articles and have a different expectation of their content.
Professor Luckhurst suggested that in a post-Leveson world it might be advantageous for more magazine titles to step outside the remit of a new regulator, even if that meant they were not exempt from VAT (which is being advocated as a possible incentive for membership of a future watchdog). “Some might well choose not to burden themselves with the regulatory framework,” he said.
Gossip girls: The celebrity magazine editors at Leveson
Rosie Nixon, Hello!
Scoop A purported "rare and exclusive" interview with JK Rowling that had actually been lifted from another source. Nixon admits it was actually a Q&A session that the Harry Potter author did with some children for Comic Relief.
Lisa Byrne, OK!
Scoop A cover story on the Duchess of Cambridge. Byrne was asked if readers may have expected it to be an exclusive interview because of a cover line: "My husband is my soulmate" – which referred to a different story. "If I was going to be misleading I would have pushed it up," she said.
Lucie Cave, Heat
Scoop A cover story about the "wobbly bits" of Christina Aguilera and other celebrities. Ms Cave was asked if it was not an "invasion of privacy". She replied: "We felt we were writing a very empowering piece about a celebrity who loves her wobbly bits."