The Clean Kill

Now that they can’t hack phones or dress up as Arab businessmen to get the inside scoop on celebrities, unscrupulous tabloid reporters have fewer options left open to them. So when they’re not nicking their ‘exclusives’ off Twitter, how are they sourcing their big, blockbuster stories these days?

Ever since the Leveson Inquiry wrapped up, the newspaper industry – in particular, tabloid showbiz journalism – has been rather keen to make itself look a little more ethical.

The days of cheeky bin-rummagers, matey phone-hackers and chummy undercover stings ended when Glenn Mulcaire, Andy Coulson and the Fake Sheikh all got sent to prison.

It’s no longer cool to brag about buying up people’s medical records. Pressuring impressionable young starlets into scoring you coke isn’t the crowd-pleasing wheeze it once was. If Piers Morgan has any more stories that self-evidently came from listening to Heather Mills’ answerphone messages, he’d be smart not to include them in any further instalments of his memoirs.

No, everyone these days has gone legit. Or at least that’s how it seems.

Instead of illegally intercepting their inboxes, hacks are now bending over backwards to highlight the sorts of positive and supportive relationships they have built with stars. The idea, presumably, is to display such an outsized sense of respect and appreciation that celebs will somehow feel comfortable sharing the sorts of stories that once had to be prized out of them by force.

But that seems a little strange though, no? All this sudden friendliness while there’s talk of a Leveson 2? Settlements are still being reached regarding the phone-hacking scandal. In the last month alone, both the Mirror Group and News Group Newspapers have made six-figure payouts to a number of celebrities. The wounds still appear to be fairly fresh. So why would celebrities be so willing to line up to make friends with the same papers they’re so often in court with?

What’s going on? Has the media really found its soft side? Or is there something more complex at play here?

(We’ll give you a clue: the media doesn’t have a soft side.)

Business As Usual

For the most part, it works like this. Journalists with a page to fill turn to celebrities who are eager to fill a page. Between them they strike a deal. Exposure in exchange for access.

Sometimes the arrangement is unspoken: say, lobbing a glamorous star a softball question on the red carpet so that they give a bland (but exclusive) soundbite that can then be whipped up into a story.

Sometimes the arrangement is more formal: say, Simon Cowell offering up his X Factor acts for exclusive interviews on the understanding that all other coverage of his ailing, anaemic singing contests is fawning and uncritical.

Stories like this have filled a hundred million pages, and will fill a hundred million more. It is the starch of showbiz journalism. It could be replaced by machine learning tomorrow and the only people who would be any the wiser would be the writers who got fired.

The dynamic starts to get a little more complicated when the press wants access to someone who isn’t really that interested in being exposed; or when PRs want to expose someone who isn’t really that interesting to access. This can result in a little bit of conflict, but it’s nothing insurmountable.

One way to solve it is to create some sort of ‘package deal’ where, in order to land a big-name celeb, the journalist will also agree to write a couple of puff pieces elsewhere about some lesser-known acts who share the same management company.

If the celeb doesn’t have much leverage in the way of star-power, another way is to bump up the level of access they’re prepared to offer. Maybe they’d allow some less-than-flattering things to be said about them in print? Perhaps they’d agree to some candid, intimate shots of a beach holiday? Or grant an interview about a recent personal tragedy?

If the story is juicy enough (or you’re prepared to have someone tail you 24 hours a day to document your every fag, shit or phonecall) then it can go a long way to counterbalance the lack of name-recognition.

But what happens when the press gets hold of a proper bombshell? An exposé on a very influential celebrity; the type that PRs are expressly paid to keep out of the press’s hands?

An explosive story would all but guarantee a spike in sales for the paper, but it would also destroy any chance of any lucrative, long-term relationship with the celebrity – not to mention their colleagues, their keepers and a number of their high-powered associates too.

That’s quite a lot of collateral for a single scoop. Surely there’s a neater way to work a story like that?

Of course there is. It’s called the Clean Kill.

Setting The Trap

Ready to do some entirely hypothetical imagining?

Let’s pretend that you are a famous media personality. The exact particulars of your job are unimportant for our purposes, so let’s just say you are well known – both as a name and as a face. You enjoy your job, the public seems to like you and your bosses are extremely happy with your annual performance. You’re not overexposed, you’re not under-utilised. You work your niche perfectly and you look, pretty much, to be set for life.

The only problem is you’re mad into coke.

This isn’t a little weekends-and-high-holidays habit. It’s not really that you take a connoisseur’s interest in it either. You just love the stuff, plain and simple. With friends. Alone. With drinks. Without. Afternoon. Evening. Night. You can’t get enough of it.

It’s a problem. Not just in terms of your own well-being, but in terms of your career prospects too – because guess what? You’ve got sloppy. The press have been tipped off to your prodigious intake and they’ve had people staked outside your flat for weeks now, documenting every time your dealer arrives.

They have pictures. They have people prepared to offer up quotes. They have all the evidence they need to get this past their in-house lawyers, and they’re ready to print.

If they push the button on this, it will cause you some serious headaches. There are very few brands or companies that can afford to keep their ties to a documented drug user unsevered – and the bigger and brighter a star you are, the greater the pressure they’ll be under to distance themselves from you, for even the most minor transgression.

So what do you do? You can’t afford another injunction. You can’t cross your fingers and hope it’ll go away. What other choice do you have?

Your best bet in this sort of situation is to confront the people who have a gun to your head – and offer to slit your own throat instead.

This is how the Clean Kill work.

You agree to go on the record. You agree to give quotes, and pictures, and, most importantly, your word that this will all stay exclusive. This is really all that they’re after – so, in exchange for that, the journalists will then afford you some artistic control on the direction their story takes.

For example, rather than framing the story around drugs that are illegal to obtain like marijuana or cannabis-derived CBD, you might be able to persuade them to focus more keenly on the sorts of drugs you can legally possess instead. Like alcohol, for instance. Or prescription painkillers. Or bath salts.

This will prevent anyone dwelling too much on the potential criminality of your behaviour, and it gives any companies, charities or other organisations with whom you do business the leeway to spare your contract.

It will also save the tabloids from having to take too moralistic a stand about cocaine – the way they would have to when the story hinges around Kate Moss taking it, or Tulisa trying to procure some for someone else.

You may also be able to frame the story in such a way that it sets you up for a redemptive arc. No-one wants to see someone totally destroyed. So if you look as though you are addressing your problems head on – that you are making a pledge to do better; taking a chance to take some time from the spotlight to work on yourself – not only does it reflect well on you as a person, it gives the reporter a whole journey to cover. There’s three months of stories in that, for no extra effort.

If you wanted to be really cheeky about it, you could even pretend that you’re coming clean about your drug use to serve some wider, more noble purpose. You could say that you came to the press with the story to help dismantle the stigma of substance addiction, and that the press is doing the public a great service by running it as it may encourage anyone else with similar struggles to seek help.

It doesn’t need to be drugs. Maybe you’ve got a mistress that you’ve been caught with. You could have been spotted out on the town, on a remote tropical island, emerging from her house in the Home Counties. It doesn’t matter where. It happens everywhere. The ever-benevolent hacks who have been trailing you have done you the great service of handing copies to your PR before they hand any to your wife.

They’re offering you the chance to get ahead of this story if you’re prepared to make it an exclusive?

Maybe you could spin some story about the stresses of fame taking their toll on your marriage – in order to explain your now-imminent divorce. As long as you don’t grant their rivals an exclusive, the paper won’t care.

Or maybe it’s both. Maybe you’ve been caught nursing a prodigious drug habit while you’ve been cheating on your wife, and the press has caught you in a tactical pincer movement. It happened to Paul Ross. It could happen to anyone.

The benefits of a Clean Kill should be obvious to a snared celebrity – but the press aren’t giving up their great scoop out of charity. They have their reasons for keeping this neat too…

The Wipe Down

If a paper runs a long lens photo of a celeb emerging from their side-piece’s shagpad, it’s pretty clear how the journos came into possession of the story. It’s also pretty clear how it might violate a celeb’s Article 8 right to a private life.

If the celebrity happened to be aggrieved by the tenor of the article (or, more likely, the size of the divorce settlement it inspired) they would have every legal right to sue. Not only would the paper need a watertight reason for the intrusion, more widely it gives the general impression that showbiz hacks are up to their old tricks again. Snooping around in the bushes, trying to trick people. All very grubby. All very early 2000s.

However, if there was some way to convince a celebrity that it would be in their best interests to come forward and speak about these delicate matters without anyone having to resort to publishing such tawdry photos, that would go quite some way to making the story look more respectable.

It’s the same thing with drug use. Unless the celeb is doing it off the bar in the Groucho, it’s usually pretty hard to drum up any hard evidence without installing secret cameras or setting up some sort of sting. And given how badly that backfired for Mazher Mahmood last time he tried it (he ended up in jail as an indirect result of his botched attempt to fell Tulisa) it seems that our appetite for this sort of subterfuge is not as endless as it once was.

So, if a reporter can keep that side of the story hidden (the unappetising raw ingredients) and just present us with the end result (a compliant celebrity sausage) then we are much happier with that.

Fandom is much more tribal and intense than it used to be too. If the tabloids go in hard on someone that the public has great affection for, the chances are that it will only serve to create a backlash against the paper. Fans will side with the celebrity, shun the journalist who tried to disparage them and encourage other fans to boycott the paper.

Obviously a fan-led boycott is unlikely to worry the bean-counters, of course, but why risk rocking the boat? If the paper looks to be treating the story seriously and sensitively, then it works out well for everyone. Hack, star and fan alike.

There is one other category of individual who benefits also from the Clean Kill, but theirs is a story that we can’t really do justice here. We’ll tackle them in due course, but they are the shareholders; investors who have stumped up money for projects that hinge heavily on a star’s marketability or executives whose share prices are at the mercy of a scandal.

They weren’t really too fussed when the papers were filled with reality stars and glamour models. But now that bombshells are bursting in the upper echelons of Hollywood, TV, the comedy and music industries, their interest in the matter has been somewhat piqued…