Gored by the tabloid with a taste for digital blood

Taiwan's 'Apple Daily' spoofs the high and mighty with its hit brand of video 'maybe journalism'. David McNeill reports
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The Independent Online

The door to hotel suite 903 swings open and a portly, middle-aged man welcomes in his black-clad masseuse. Inside, he turns into a leering sexual predator, plying her with Grand Marnier, directing her attentions to his groin then exploding when she declines. During the long session that follows, the woman is pinned to the bed, forcibly French-kissed and grappled from behind before fleeing the room. The experience, she tells the police, was like being assaulted by a "sex-crazed poodle".

That alleged 2006 encounter between one-time US presidential candidate Al Gore and the unnamed woman at the Hotel Lucia in Portland Oregon is hotly disputed. Mr. Gore has "unequivocally" denied the claims, which are the subject of a fresh police investigation amid reports that the woman demanded $1m (£658,000) from the National Enquirer newspaper for her story. But that has not stopped Taiwan's racy tabloid, Apple Daily, from re- enacting the episode in several pieces of animated pseudo-journalism that have proved controversial– and hugely popular.

Little is left to the imagination. In a one-minute 42-second clip, the frenzied grappling of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner climaxes with a Bill Clinton-esque stain on his victim's dress. The former US President puts in a cameo appearance in flagrante, standing over White House intern Monica Lewinsky moments after the now famous presidential emission had splashed on to her blue dress, and into history.

Mr Gore is later seen arguing with his wife Tipper after she furiously confronts him about his infidelities; the couple announced their separation this year after 40 years of marriage. Interspersed with shots of the former vice-president smiling serenely beneath a gleaming halo as he crosses the world battling climate change, the implication of the clips is clear: the sanctimonious hero of the environmental movement is a hypocrite.

Produced by an animation unit of Next Media, which runs Apple Daily, the Gore "news report" is its latest foray into speculative journalism, an arena where tabloid hacks riff on scandals involving the rich and famous, and leave digital blood on the walls. The New York Times calls it "maybe journalism", and the harbinger of the future. Many media analysts say it is only a matter of time before media companies in Britain and the US try their hand at the genre.

Apple Daily has history. Last year, it dramatised the fight between Tiger Woods and his wife Elin in the moments that preceded the fateful encounter between his SUV and a fire hydrant, which triggered the unravelling of his priapic double life. A furious Mrs Woods is seen slapping her pixilated husband before chasing him out of the driveway with a golf club, which she uses to repeatedly bash the rear of the car. As Woods nervously glances backwards, he crashes the vehicle.

The couple's initial version of the story was that the golf club was used to free Woods from the wrecked car. But their statement, denying claims that physical violence caused the accident as "utterly false and malicious" look less convincing in the light of subsequent developments.

Yet the animated version of what happened – ethically suspect and speculative though it undoubtedly was – ended up being eerily close to the mark, said Next Media's scriptwriter, Daisy Li. "We think we got it right," she now says.

Apple Daily is the brainchild of Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lai, one of China's best-known and most colourful free-speech advocates. He explained the thinking behind the title by saying: "If Adam and Eve [hadn't] eaten the apple, there would be no evil or wrongdoings in this world, which [would make] news a non-existing term."

A bitter critic of Beijing's Stalinist government, Mr Lai built Apple Daily into the province's number two newspaper with a gossipy mix of paparazzi-driven news and brazen political mud-slinging at Beijing – one newspaper column told Chinese leader Li Peng to "Drop dead" – that have earned it a nationwide ban on the mainland. In 2003, he launched the Taiwanese version. The recipe has proved immensely popular: Apple Daily is Taiwan's most widely read paper.

The animated unit started issuing its "reports" in November. Most of its daily output of 20 videos are local news stories – a Taiwanese man attacking his grandmother – but the cartoons of its international targets have found mass appeal, with millions watching them on You Tube. "You have a lot of missing images, in the TV, in the news reporting," Mr Lai told CNN. "If this is an image generation or image era that we are in, that is a big gap we are filling."

He has invested $30m in the team of 180 employees who create the virtual depictions: scriptwriters, artists, animators and even actors to don motion sensor suits and stage the reconstruction to ensure the cartoon versions move realistically.

But its method of building sensationalist, animated recreations of news events on conjecture and guesswork is controversial. The government of Taiwan's capital, Taipei, has already fined the company $31,000 for exposing children to its violent reconstructions of car crashes, school fights and sex crimes. Taipei has also asked schools and libraries in the city to cancel subscriptions to Apple Daily, which carries a barcode allowing readers to download the clips into mobile phones.

Apple Daily has responded by launching a fight against what it calls limits on press freedom and restricting some of its video clips to the over-18s. Its CEO, Yip Yut Kin, apologised after demonstrations outside the company's Taipei headquarters last year, but parent Next Media's chief executive has since defended the so-called "action news" clips.

But the company's plans to open five TV stations of its own have hit the buffers, after Taiwan's telecom regulator rejected Apple Daily's application for licences on the island, saying the company's methods and salacious output violated its media values.

Executives have hinted at interest from overseas. Indeed, following Apple Daily's cartoon version of the allegations of bullying by Gordon Brown (which depicted him throwing a secretary from her chair), Newsnight commissioned a tongue-in-cheek animated series on the UK election campaign. Next's animators worked on Brown's "bigot gaffe", showing a contrite leader on his knees to apologise to Gillian Duffy then repeatedly writing, "I must not insult Labour voters" on a blackboard.

The war over this free-wheeling treatment of the news is likely to continue as long as the stream of digital firecrackers does. The big question is, after Woods, Brown and Gore, who will be next?