Once upon a time I worked as a reporter for a daily tabloid newspaper.
Not one owned by Rupert Murdoch, but nevertheless a full-blown red-top.
It was in the mid 90s and I didn’t last long, for reasons which will become clear.
But I was there for long enough to get an insight into the peculiar pressures facing those who work in the national tabloids.
And long enough to know that the moral compass of those who ran those types of newspapers wasn’t set at the same place as most of the rest of the population.
Like most reporters, I was desperate to work on a ‘national’and after writing to all of them, was called in for an interview with one. It wasn’t my ideal to say the least, but probably like many of those who work on tabloids, I reasoned that it would give me a break and I could move onto a better newspaper once I had ‘national’ experience.
I was initially offered a month long contract and this was soon extended. This was after one particular article which the news editor absolutely loved, but which to say the least wasn’t my proudest achievement.
It was a psychological assessment of the death an MP following a bizarre sex game. In short, it analysed the peculiar acts which led to his death and explained how each one had turned him on.
The thing was, when you worked on a tabloid, you basically did what you were told or you were out.
It was an extremely competitive environment – one of the few working newsrooms I’ve ever been in which had no chat, no banter, no laughter, no-one even asking you if you’d had a good weekend on a Monday morning.
You were worked like a dog and were expected to be available 24:7. I had a holiday to South America to go to a wedding and was told to ring the newsdesk the instant I got back.
I got home about 8pm and knew that if I’d called then, I’d have been expected to start working straightaway. I didn’t call them until the next day.
The whole approach of the management was to keep you hungry. There was little praise and much deliberate wrong-footing to keep you on your toes. You’d be asked to do one thing, then when you did it, be told you had actually been expected to do something completely different.
All your stories had to be skewed to the particular approach of the newspaper management and ethos.
So you didn’t actually write the truth, you wrote the truth according to the editors and management.
For example, I was once sent out to do a story about a homeless initiative launched by the government.
I went out onto the streets to interview the homeless about what they thought of it.
Most of those on the streets were basically hardened down-and-outs who didn’t think much of the government’s ideas.
But I didn’t bother to include their views in my story. The newspaper wasn’t actually interested in them. What they wanted was for me to find a homeless, blond, pretty teenage girl who was living on the streets having been abused in a children’s home.
This of course was never articulated. It didn’t need to be. It was obvious. I knew exactly what they wanted.
When I didn’t find it, I fudged it a bit to make sure my story fitted the pre-conceived notion of what the newspaper wanted.
For me the final straw came after I had done another story which the newsdesk liked – I can’t remember what. I was told to come into the office the next day, and they’d have a great story for me.
When I got in, the news editor’s first words were: ‘Why aren’t you in Norfolk’ – that wrong-footing thing where they made you feel as if you had done something wrong.
Anyway, my ‘great story’ was to go an interview a lady in her 90s. It had just been revealed that in the 1960s her son had had an affair with Princess Margaret and had subsequently committed suicide.
This lady had already refused to talk to another tabloid, so it wasn’t even a new story. That’s just one example of the contempt with which the newspaper treated its readers. It didn’t care a bit if it rehashed an old story – it worked on the basis its readers didn’t read any other newspapers.
Anyway, the likelihood of me turning up on this poor lady’s doorstep and persuading her to open her heart was pretty much slim to zero.
The news editor’s big idea was to take a bunch of flowers. My big fear was that she’d be so upset she’d have a heart attack.
Anyway, of course I did what I was told. Drove to Norfolk. Knocked on the door. Was turned away. Drove back.
And for me that was the end. I couldn’t stand the idea that anyone thought that I liked/enjoyed/sanctioned/endorsed the type of behaviour of a tabloid journalist.
So I went in the next day and resigned. The news editor told me that I didn’t have the stomach for it. In a sense it was true – I didn’t have the stomach to work for a newspaper which distorted the truth and deliberately set out to intrude and invade people’s privacy.
Essentially to work for a tabloid you were expected to sell your soul, and be grateful for the chance to do so.
Many people did so because that type of reporting was in their blood. Others did it because they wanted to break into quality newspapers, and many of those I worked with have gone on to do just that.
But for me, the price was too high.