Saucy Tabloid Tales

This extract from Paul Barry’s Breaking News cover book Breaking News: Sex, lies and the Murdoch succession, first appeared in Encore. Rupert Murdoch’s papers have long been known for having an appetite for scandal – particularly in the UK.

Kelvin MacKenzie, the long-serving editor of Rupert Murdoch’s best-selling Sun, was once asked what he thought about tabloid ethics. In a favourite quip he would recycle many times, he famously replied: “Ethics? As far as I’m concerned, that’s a place to the east of London where people wear white socks.” Another lesser-known Murdoch journalist, Greg Miskiw, who was once news editor of the News of the World, and now faces charges of phone hacking, summed up his paper’s culture even more eloquently. “This is what we do,” he explained to a stressed-out reporter. “We go out and destroy other people’s lives.”

Had Miskiw’s candid confession not been taped, in vintage News of the World style, no one would ever have believed it. But the recording was proof that he said it.

And if you thumbed through copies of Murdoch’s Sunday scandal sheet, published between 2000 and 2006, when Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson were editing the paper, you could see why he believed it, and why the paper was often known as the News of the Screws.

Almost all its big stories involved humiliating the famous for the joy of the masses, by exposing celebrities, sports stars and politicians for their illicit affairs, drunkenness or homosexuality. But it was the style of these exposés as much as the content that made them so brutal because Murdoch’s weekly tabloid never showed any mercy to its hapless victims, whom it gleefully kicked, slapped and ridiculed for the pleasure of its readers.

Over the years, the News of the World won a number of newspaper awards for some remarkable scoops, like catching the Duchess of York selling access to the Royal Family, nailing three Pakistani cricketers for match fixing, or, more controversially, revealing David Beckham’s affair with Rebecca Loos. But most of its investigations had no public interest or importance, even though they undoubtedly packed a punch. And the paper’s front-page EXCLUSIVE from July 2006 on gay pop star, George Michael, was a prime example.

Headed, GEORGE IN NEW SEX SHAME, and written by the paper’s chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, it began: “Mega Rich pop superstar George Michael this week sank to new levels of depravity—trawling for illegal gay sex thrills in a London park. News of the World investigators caught the singer red-handed and red-faced as he emerged from the bushes after cavorting with a pot-bellied 58-year-old jobless van driver.”

Thurlbeck told the paper’s readers in shocked tones that it “was all in a public place and totally illegal”. But a more honest description might have been that the unspecified acts had taken place in pitch dark, in thick undergrowth, at three o’clock in the morning, when everyone apart from the paper’s fearless investigative team was fast asleep. And Michael’s ‘depraved’ behaviour had in fact been so private that even the paper’s snappers with their powerful telephoto lenses had been unable to see what he was doing. If public decency had been offended, it was only because Thurlbeck and Miskiw, and their editor, Andy Coulson, had chosen to put it all on the front page of the paper.

Typically, the News of the World also failed to mention that it had only got this story because its crack reporters had sat outside the singer’s house for several hours, or perhaps days, before following his car at 1am to Hampstead Heath, where they had shadowed him for two hours until he finally scored. But this was how the paper’s fearless

sleuths habitually spent their time. Not content with exposing Michael’s midnight meanderings, the reporting team had also followed the man they described as ‘a pot-bellied 58-year-old jobless van driver’ 100 kilometres back to Brighton, so they could push their way into his flat, bully him into a quote about the star and report that his “dingy place was littered with rubbish, dirty crockery and filthy laundry”, and that his only companion was “a 20-year-old cat”.

Two weeks earlier, the News of the World had featured another Neville Thurlbeck story, titled, RANDY ANDY’S TEENY WEENY TARTAN HANKY SPANKY, which revealed that the former Scottish soccer star, Andy Gray, might be “a giant among TV pundits” but was “a midget in the bedroom”. The EXCLUSIVE kiss-and-tell interview with his Italian ex-lover, Deanna Franco, highlighted his pot belly and small penis. “The sex was always awful,” she told the paper, no doubt for a suitable fee, adding that, “lovemaking would only last a couple of minutes, then he would roll over and go to sleep.”

A previous issue had boasted a similar EXCLUSIVE on the star of The Trip and I’m Alan Partridge, which began, “The secret lover of comic Steve Coogan last night dumped him and branded him a sick PERVERT addicted to warped sex, hookers, cocaine and Viagra.”

Pretty Victoria Vanegas sobbed: “He’s one of the most depraved men I’ve ever met. I’ll be ashamed of the disgusting things he made me do for the rest of my life.” The long-suffering Ms Vanegas, whose hard time with the actor was perhaps now being compensated for by a substantial payment from the News of the World, sobbed that she had whipped him, slapped him and performed “a bizarre sex act too disgusting to mention in a family newspaper”.

But she did not explain why she had stuck around for two years if she found it all so abhorrent.

Yet another story that July took aim at comedian Russell Brand, with an EXCLUSIVE headed RUSSELL B-RANDY: 3AM HE BEDS KIMBERLEY, 12PM HE SMOOCHES SADIE. And, naturally, the Screws also brought its readers up to date on the Royal Family with another EXCLUSIVE titled FLIRTY HARRY TRIED TO DO DIRTY WITH ME, which announced that, “A pretty masseuse has told how Prince Harry couldn’t keep his hands off her after she gave him a sexy rub down.”

Most of these stories, and there were three or four in every issue, read like a Private Eye parody of the genre, and would have been funny had real people not been involved. But the targets of these tawdry tales were clearly of no concern to the paper’s journalists, who obviously believed they deserved to have their reputations ruined, if only because they were richer and more famous than their readers. And the News of the World’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, made it clear that he also had no problems with this collateral damage. Back in the 1980s, when The Sun was running a series of scandalous and unsubstantiated stories on Elton John, he was famously confronted by one of Britain’s popular breakfast TV presenters, Anne Diamond, who asked him: “How do you sleep at night, knowing that your papers ruin people’s lives?”

“It was just water off a duck’s back,” Diamond later recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t ruin people’s lives. They ruin their lives.’ And those were his values…if you somehow get into his newspapers it’s your fault.” This was doubtless a legacy of Rupert’s puritan upbringing: these people were sinners, so they deserved their fate.

Extract from Breaking News: Sex, lies and the Murdoch succession, by Paul Barry, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $39.99

Encore Issue 33This extract first appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.



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