Something much darker than the dark art of phone hacking is astir in Britain's newspaper business. And that's making up stories out of whole cloth.
Consider Charlotte Church's recent testimony to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the U.K. press. The 25-year-old singer, dubbed the Voice of an Angel before her 12th birthday, cited a story published in November not by a newspaper of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. but by a Trinity Mirror plc weekly called The People.
Therein, under the headline of "Marryoke," Church purportedly proposed to her boyfriend during "a boozy pub karaoke night." The proposal followed a rousing rendition of The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" -- or so the Sunday tabloid informed its circulation of 840,000 -- after which Church "slumped in a chair next to her man and gave him a huge kiss." A positive response from the boyfriend led to uncorked champagne, prompting a so-called friend to remark: "Charlotte was very happy. She was singing 'I'm Getting Married in the Morning' as we helped her to the taxi afterwards."
The Sun, which is a Murdoch property, was not to be outdone even though it missed the scoop. It not only ran the story the next day but embellished it with "Church FORGOT she had proposed to her boyfriend after drunkenly popping the question at a karaoke night." And so it went. "Within 36 hours of the reporting of this tale," Church wrote in her witness statement to the inquiry, "it was picked up by 70 outlets around the world and presented as fact."
But was it? "At the time that I was alleged to be 'proposing,' " Church continued in her statement, "I was in fact performing in a completely different town with a large public audience. My manager checked and there was not even karaoke at the pub I was supposed to have been at."
Granted, The People's marriage proposal story didn't disseminate false information about something as serious as, say, weapons of mass destruction. Nor was it the first to suggest Church enjoys the occasional adult beverage. But for sheer brazenness, for presenting what Church called "a complete fabrication" to a global audience that ultimately tallied in the millions, this singular yet by no means uncommon piece of U.K. journalism outdoes the phone-hacking scandal that precipitated the Leveson Inquiry in the first place.
As deplorable as that scandal is, its motivations are understandable. Or so Paul McMullan, once of Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World, would have you believe. "All I've ever tried to do is to write truthful articles and to use any means necessary to try and get to the truth," the former NOTW deputy features editor testified before the inquiry. "There's so many barriers in the way that sometimes you have to enter a gray area."
Few will go so far as to assert, as McMullan did to the Leveson Inquiry, that "phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool" for a journalist to ferret out the truth. But they might go along with his claim that "I don't think anyone realized that anyone was committing a crime at the start."
Indeed, if forced to make a case for hacking, one could do worse than compare journalists to athletes. Just as technology has developed ways to enhance the performance of the former, biology has delivered steroids to enhance the performance of the latter. And for a carefree moment, at least, those who partook in either could feign innocence. Admittedly, the analogy falls apart on heeding the ability of U.K. journalism to keep its performance enhancer under wraps, whereas the International Olympic Committee cast a global light on steroid abuse when it stripped Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson of his gold medal in 1988.
The ability of hackers to cover themselves, until recently anyway, required cooperation from more than just the journalistic community. As Prime Minister David Cameron said in July, when reports in The Guardian finally rendered the cover-up impossible to sustain, "This is a black cloud that is hovering over the press, over Parliament, over the police." Cameron even admitted "we have all been in this together ... and yes, that includes me."
So the Leveson Inquiry began, revealing in no uncertain terms that U.K. journalism is even tawdrier than initially perceived. Here's Richard Peppiatt, a former reporter for Northern & Shell Network Ltd.'s Daily Star, commenting before the inquiry on a story served to the tabloid's 700,000 circulation. "It was completely made up," he said of his bylined piece, "Beauty hires hypnotist," about well-known model Kelly Brook.
Its inspiration, in fact, reflected nothing more than an unfilled news hole and an approaching press run. "The news editor of the day came over and said, 'Right, anyone, I don't care what it is, first person to give me a page 3 story, 150 quid.' And I came up with that," Peppiatt boasted about a work of fiction that opened with "GORGEOUS Kelly Brook is seeing a hypnotist to help her stop taking so long to get ready."
Then, to the inquiry, the former reporter explained, "It's simply playing the game and walking that sort of tightrope of what can we get away with." Peppiatt happened to get it right, this time, but there's more to it than that. His metaphorical tightrope is of the high-wire variety, from which many more members of England's press, political and police communities will undoubtedly fall.