Celebrity copy approval has become a rather hot topic this week, thanks to the fallout from Clare Balding’s PR people trying to make changes to a interview in Saga magazine. It’s a problem, to be sure – but if you’re going to try to lift the curtain on this sort of bad practice, you really ought to lift it all the way up…
Whether it’s pesky millionaire divas desperately trying to control every last bit of the ‘narrative’; meddlesome PRs who are paid to embellish, airbrush and spin; or the faceless crowd of yes-men, brand ambassadors and reputation managers who work around the clock to run interference with the truth – this week has been filled with stories about how celebrity copy approval is absolutely rife within the media industry at the moment.
It’s the scourge of honest journalism! It’s the plague of our times! According to one particular tabloid hack, it’s “ruining the art of the celebrity interview”! And who is better qualified to opine on the degradation of the artform than Dan Wootton: who is to showbiz journalism what that Spanish pensioner was to that fresco of Christ.
To a large extent, there’s no real arguing with the point. Celebrity copy approval is bad. There’s no two ways about it. It’s a shitty, yet increasingly normalised, part of modern media. (In fact, it was watching a particularly honest and interesting interview with Mel C get pencilled into copy-controlled oblivion that, more than anything, was the catalyst to us starting Popbitch.)
But it’s by no means the whole story. Not by a long chalk.
Good though it was to see a journalist stand up and speak out about what happened with the Clare Balding situation, we can’t sit by and idly watch as certain other journalists try to piggyback on the point and pretend that PR people are the only ones at fault here. Especially when their own track records are hardly squeaky clean.
So let’s take a little look at some of the other practices that may be contributing to The Great Defacing, shall we? A slightly wider view of the situation, to maybe help uncover some of the other things that have potentially had a hand in compromising the sanctity of celebrity interviews…
1/ Celebrity Shakedown
Put yourself in these hypothetical shoes for a moment. Imagine you’re a middling TV presenter. You’ve been a familiar face on primetime television for years and are quite well-known, in your way. And though you’re nobody’s favourite necessarily, you’re likeable enough and can always be depended on to do a solid, if not exactly stellar, job.
You also happen to be sneaking off to car parks in the dead of night to snort bath salts and fuck a bunch of people who very much aren’t your wife.
Well, here’s the bad news. Reporters have got a hold of your story. They know you’re shagging around behind your partner’s back and they’re ready to run with it.
How do you stop it? What are your options? Take out an injunction? It’s a possibility, yes – but an expensive one, and there’s always the risk that you’ll invite even worse speculation if it ever gets out that you’re using the courts to cover up your private conduct.
Alternatively, you could try to tough it out if you think you’ve got a thick enough skin for it – but it won’t be pleasant for you, your family, your fans or future employment prospects. Not one for the faint of heart.
So instead you try to reach some sort of compromise. You have your people reach out to the journalists. You strike a deal whereby, in exchange for collaborating on a confessional tell-all exclusive interview, they’ll spare the grizzly details. They’ll sit tight on some of the pictures they have. They won’t reach out to any of their secondary sources.
If you’re an especially good boy they might not even allude to your misdemeanour at all. Instead the interview will focus on your family, your life, your wonderful marriage etc. No-one wants to be reminded of the seedy side of celebrity.
Naturally, you wouldn’t want to be thought of us as uncooperative or ungrateful in this situation, so you wouldn’t dream of making any demands of the interviewer. You simply show up, spill your guts and hope you’ve fed them enough red meat to have them go easy on you. They get their scoop; you limit the damage – and everyone is (broadly) happy.
And best of all, no-one’s asked for any copy approval. How extremely ethical!
2/ Publicist Power
There’s a good reason that celebs sign up with big well-known PR stables. There’s strength in numbers.
Say one of the PR’s clients has been caught up to their eyeballs in coke, spotted with a call girl on either arm, or dressed in a rather racially insensitive costume – the PR can always call on the more wholesome members of their roster to help make amends for it.
So let’s stay in those hypothetical shoes for a moment longer. However, rather than being a meow meow orgy enthusiast, this time cast yourself as a different second-tier TV personality: one who is working some pretty high profile gigs, but is also conducting a pretty ill-advised affair with a model that works for one of the nation’s least reputable tabloids. (It seems far fetched, we know – but trust us, okay?)
How can the PR ensure that the journalist still fills their pages without resorting to covertly taken pictures, or kiss’n’tell girls ready to spill saucy secrets? They’re going to need to provide the journalist with something else to pad out the rest of their pages. What better than a few other exclusive interviews? If not from the celebrity in question, then from some of the scandal-magnet’s stablemates.
As soon as you’re aware of this, you’ll probably spot for yourself that around the time of big, shocking celebrity exposés a number of other, lighter stories will also start appearing from stars who share the same agent, manager or PR firm – all to help take the heat off any one individual. Again, no-one in this sort of situation wants to be seen as being so presumptuous as to ask for copy approval, so nobody does. They turn up, knowing exactly what is expected of them (rehearsed to within an inch of their life) and they do their job.
However, this one is apt to cut both ways.
Sometimes the celebrity in question isn’t a mid-grade quiz show host. Sometimes they’re a big deal. A properly big deal. A real red carpet type, represented by the sort of agent who only deals in international superstars.
If a journalist tries to overstep the mark with them at all, a highly powerful PR can make threats to take the ball away from them for good. Write shit about one star, lose access to every single one of their stable for ever. And not just for the one journalist either. The whole newspaper can get cut off.
Former Hollywood uber-agent Pat Kingsley pioneered this trick. She managed to keep every whisper about her biggest client, Tom Cruise, out of the media by very, very forcefully leveraging access to all of her other clients. And as she controlled half of Hollywood at the time, no-one had the balls to break the omerta.
Of course, these super-powerful svengali-types wouldn’t be so crass as to ask for copy approval because, well, why would they need to? Only a journalist on a career-suicide mission would ever write anything disparaging about them or any of their acts.
So they can rest easy knowing that the coverage will always have a certain glow to it.
3/ Brute Force
So far, everything has been hinged around one crucial, common denominator: the desire for favourable attention (whether that’s from journalist to celebrity, or from celebrity to journalist).
But what about the type of celebrity that doesn’t want any attention of any type? That most mysterious of beasts: the elusive superstar that is more concerned with making their art than courting the tabloids.
If they’re the debauched type, then you won’t need them to consent to a story. You can just run tales of their bad behaviour regardless.
But not every celebrity is a drug-munching, hard-drinking nymphomaniac. Some of them are capable of conducting themselves quite reasonably.
So what do you do when you have a celebrity who doesn’t need the exposure? Someone who actively goes out of their way to keep their life private as far as is possible? Someone who genuinely isn’t interested in fame for fame’s sake; someone who just wants to write music or make movies or play football for a living?
The easy option is to simply leave them to it. To let them live their life without interruption or invasion.
Or, another is to call their PR person and scream down the phone at them so loudly that other people in the same room can hear you quite clearly, and insist that if they don’t give you an exclusive interview then you will run a front page story about how their client’s father is dying and position their client to look like a self-absorbed monster for choosing to continue their career in the face of family tragedy.
An unsubtle technique, perhaps, but one that gets mad results.
The celebrity’s father will have to be actually ill, obviously (and will therefore have to be undergoing all the sort of emotional turmoil that such a diagnosis traditionally involves) otherwise there’s no real leverage to be had with the celeb. Of course, if it happens to be their mother who is suffering from dementia, then you can easily alter those details to suit. Or if it’s them, and they’re suffering from anorexia; or it’s their child and they’ve attempted an overdose. Whatever it is, you play the hand you’re dealt. Just be sure to really scream down the phone.
It’s a versatile trick – and guess what? Usually the celebrity will feel so brutalised by your unrelentingly shitty attitude that they won’t even think to ask you for copy approval. They’ll just be so glad to have you off their case, whatever the cost, that you can probably run whatever you like.
And, really, the important thing is that those meddling middlemen don’t get a chance to chop up your quotes, compromising your dearly held ethics.
4/ Closet Cases
One of the big sticking points with the original Clare Balding article that sparked this whole debate was that her people apparently felt that the interview made too much of the fact that Clare is gay.
It’s a tricky topic. Some people believe that gay celebrities in the public eye have a duty to be out, to act as visible torchbearers for the wider community. Others believe that it’s highly personal information and that there is no obligation for anyone to disclose their sexual identity to anyone – least of all the press.
Thankfully, it’s not a question we need to solve right now because, regardless of your personally held opinion on the matter, there’s an absolutely foolproof way to secure an extremely hard-hitting celebrity coming-out interview without having to compromise your journalistic moral code by submitting to PR copy approval.
There’s a very simple technique that is commonly used in this situation, a slight twist on the classics from above. A little industry trick known to those in the biz as ‘blackmail’.
There are two ways you can use a celebrity’s confidential sexual orientation to fuel your column inches. You can either:
a/ Dangle it over their heads and make the individual keep you well-stocked in scoops enough to never have to let the hammer fall, or
b/ Offer them an ultimatum: get them to grant you their big coming out story exclusively and you’ll set the interview up so it can happen on their terms, or you’ll run it regardless.
What’s particularly effective about this variation on the theme is that there’s no telling exactly how journalists will chose to spin a gay story. Unlike the heterosexual glamour model affair story – the kiss’n’tell classic – the forced outing story can take on many different guises.
It’s like Russian roulette. Do they treat you like some sort of exotic curiosity? Do they play it for laughs and make fun of you with a bunch of tired 70s cliches and an “Oo-er, missus!” headline? Or, worst of all, do they turn you into a pet project and champion your ‘struggle’ to give the whole thing a cynically ethical veneer?
Consider the case of Stephen Gately who chose to tell the wider world that he was gay via the Sun. Why did he bestow them the honour? It came about after one of the paper’s showbiz correspondents made a call to Gately’s associates explaining that someone at one of their tour venues was trying to sell them a story about Stephen’s sexuality. Was it true or a bluff? Who knows, but Gately was sufficiently worried about it that he agreed to tell the story himself.
In that particular situation, David Yelland and Andy Coulson (who were, respectively, editor of the Sun and editor of Bizarre at the time) were very open about the fact that Gately was offered full copy approval and had final say so about the story – but not everyone has been so lucky…
5/ Here Comes The Bribe
If a celebrity is absolutely hellbent on getting themselves some positive coverage, but is finding that the journalist in charge of covering the showbiz beat is being annoyingly scrupulous and refusing to submit to PR copy approval, then they have an ace up their sleeve.
Namely: sexual favours.
Sure, it’s all very well taking a journalist out with you to a fancy club, or giving them backstage passes to a festival, or flying them to LA to hang out – but this sort of stuff is bread and butter to a hack. If you want to guarantee good coverage without making your PRs beg for it, it seems a number of journalists are surprisingly willing to hook up with their subjects.
Of course, an enterprising journalist who is actively looking to get their dick sucked, or one that is actively looking to engage in a threesome with a Spice Girl and her husband (to pick two completely hypothetical examples out of definitely thin air) could get ahead of the game slightly, and put that sort of offer on the table themselves.
And we can all agree that, while allowing copy approval is an abomination to the profession, granting good coverage in exchange for a blowjob is a totally fine and principled stand to take.