Confessions of a Tabloid 'Extremist'
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Few know more about Britain’s dysfunctional tabloid culture than Graham Johnson. A former star investigative reporter at the Sunday Mirror and Rupert Murdoch’s infamous (and now defunct) News of the World, Mr. Johnson spent years ‘turning over’ gangsters, the occasional celebrity, and fellow reporters from London to LA. He is also the producer of Vice’s hugely successful and well-regarded documentary The Debt Collector, and a convict, having recently pled guilty to phone hacking during his NoTW days.
His memoir, Hack, is a double-barrelled blast of all the nastiness, fakery, illegality, and insanity that gripped the ‘red tops’ from the 1980s to the 2000s. Those who want to test their faith in the media, and indeed humanity, should pick up a copy.
I did, and immediately asked him for an interview. I wasn’t to be disappointed. A recovering tabloid ‘functionary’, he doesn’t hold back in criticising his former bosses. “Some are psychopathic. I look at them and think, ‘you’re a fucking psychopath’. And you [end up] slightly psychopathic too, because you’ve got to be an extremist to do that job. That’s one of the reasons [NoTW] collapsed, because of irrational – extremely irrational – managers”.
Daniel Tudor: To what extent is the trouble with the British tabloid press a British thing, and to what extent was it just a problem with the press in general?
Graham Johnson: It’s British press culture. I’ve been to a lot of countries as a reporter. Other reporters in other countries are very well behaved, and very nice – they don’t have any good stories, mind you! I’m arriving in a country at 6am and I have to get a world exclusive by 12. There’d be no competition, forget about everyone else, the American journalists, the French journalists, all I’m worried about is the other British journalists.
I remember being in the States. George Michael had been caught cottaging in a toilet. I walked into the police station in LA. Unlike British cops, they’d speak to you, they’d say ‘do you want to see the arrest files?’ I could see the name of the guy who was arrested at exactly the same time, so obviously he was the guy in there with him. So thanks very much! I got the story. He was an air steward. My job then was to stop other people from getting the story. The National Enquirer guy turned up, and he was a British guy, from Manchester, so I knew he was pretty sharp. I had to pretend I was a PR guy from the airline, and spoke in this cod American accent, to blag the National Enquirer guy.
DT: I saw a survey recently stating that the vast majority of American reporters would consider it unethical to impersonate someone in the course of getting a story… I wonder what they would make of phone hacking?
GJ: Well, phone hacking is unethical. Deception to get a story as part of an investigation… in that context, George Michael cottaging, it wouldn’t be justified. But it was a trick of the trade I learned at the News of the World.
DT: How much did the top people at News International know about phone hacking?
I don’t know about Rupert Murdoch, because I’ve never met him. He’s an elusive figure. But I do know Rebekah Brooks. I think she’s a bully and bullshitter. (Please note: following a letter from Rebekah Brooks' legal team and subsequent legal advice we have taken, we have removed the rest of Mr Johnson's response to this question)
DT: What proportion of NoTW stories in those days were fishy, or just made up?
Completely made up, it was probably about five or ten percent. Partially made up, maybe 40 to 50 per cent. But if you’re talking about stories being obtained by fishy means, we’re probably talking about fifty or sixty percent.
DT: Where did this culture of doing absolutely anything to get a story come from?
GJ: I think it started in the 1980s, with the introduction of intense competition between tabloids. The Sun came in and took the mantle off The Mirror, and there was The Star too.
[But when I was at] The News of the World, you didn’t even bother about other papers. You think you’re an elite, you buy into this brainwashing that you’re like a death squad, like an SAS of tabloids. They tell you that you’re the best - don’t even worry about the Sunday Mirror, they sell two million less than you. So you just compete against yourselves. The News department competes against Features, and the managers would set up this false competition. It’s intense pressure from managers.
There was a culture of fabrication. And even some of their [the News of the World’s] best reporters fabricated stories, quotes, and parts of stories.
DT: And were the bosses smart in not specifically saying ‘we want you to do [something unethical]…’
GJ: Yeah, it’s euphemisms. The best one is ‘you’ve gotta make this work’. ‘No, listen to me - I don’t give a fuck about X,Y, and Z, and she [the source] isn’t saying anything, you’ve gotta make this work.’ I know what he means. It’s got to be made to work. ‘Can’t we engineer this?’ And you get to understand what needs to happen.
DT: Do you think this is still going on?
GJ: I know it is on some newspapers. Certainly in certain departments, like the Showbiz departments of papers.
DT: How powerful is Rupert Murdoch in the UK?
GJ: Powerful. Truly powerful.
DT: Too powerful?
GJ: Yeah, I think he is too powerful. I think the healthiest media is one that is diverse, and with less concentration of ownership. It’s up to other people to take his market share.
DT: But shouldn’t there be rules against accumulating the kind of power he has built up?
GJ: Yes, I think there should be laws. But it will never happen in Britain because we’re an extreme Anglo-Saxon capitalist economy.
Concentrations of power have led to the problems in the British media. I do worry about [political influence]. Owners and editors’ job should be to create good stories, but they use their power to get involved in politics. That’s where the problems come in [with Murdoch]; when he tried to extend his power, with Sky [TV network] and this dark nexus with politicians and the police. And that led to him taking a few destructive hits.
Tabloid papers have a kind of alchemy. They create this magic of money, interest, and power.
DT: What is driving the people who work for him?
GJ: Ambition. They're extreme in their ambition to please him, and to get ahead. People act out of compulsion to please, or out of fear. And that’s really destructive. Ultimately the News of the World destroyed itself - now it doesn’t exist, because it was too poisonous to be allowed to continue.
DT: How different is the Sun on Sunday to the NoTW?
GJ: Very different. They obey the rules, they’re very careful. They haven’t got the same confidence that they used to have. The younger generation of journalists is completely different to my generation. I remember having a conversation with a young Sun journalist, and him saying ‘your generation has really fucked it up for us’. And it’s true.
The Star is still the same. It’s run by ball-bags and bullies. But it won’t exist in a year or two. If you run an unhealthy organisation, it will eventually collapse.
DT: And what about other British papers today?
GJ: From The Guardian to The Sun, they’ve all got their flaws.
I like the Mail on Sunday, they meticulously research their stories, and they have different shades of opinion – you can get really left-wing people like George Galloway writing for them, and then you can have really reactionary right-wing people in it as well. I don’t buy into the whole idea that the Mail is reactionary evil, but like any paper, it’s got its fair share of knobheads. And from what I’m told by the journalists who work there, there’s a bit of a bully-boy culture, there’s a lot of pressure.
DT: What about online media?
GJ: I don’t read much online media. The problem with it is, there are a lot of online journalists who won’t get off their spring-loaded chair to get the story. And often they won’t get off their chair because they haven’t got the money to. They’re not like the NoTW or The Sun, who say ‘here’s ten grand, fuck off and don’t come back until you get the story’. Big stories and investigations cost loads of money.
DT: In your book, you mention Noam Chomsky a lot, and talk about your role in ‘manufacturing consent’. Do you really think there is a concerted effort to manufacture consent?
GJ: Yes, totally, 100%. The reason I believe that is that I worked at the coal face and I know it. It’s self-editing. You learn to become a good functionary, a good corporate functionary. You learn to instinctively edit your ideas to fit the newspaper and the political views of the proprietor and the editors. It starts [deliberately] because the owner says ‘this is what I believe in, and you will believe in this’ - and you will believe in this, and everyone learns to follow. Rupert Murdoch’s editors instinctively know what he wants.
When you’ve got time to stand back - which is the problem with tabloids, because you never have time to reflect on anything - you would never go to The Sun with an anti-police or anti-military story, or The Daily Mail with an anti-middle class story. And The Guardian is as bad as anyone because they are the acceptable face of consent - it’s even a bigger fraud in some ways, and you can only work for them if you’re posh!’
The media, the political class, and business do talk to each other, and they do run it in their own interests. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m not saying it’s a shadowy group of Bilderberg members meeting in a pyramid somewhere…
DT: Do you think tabloid editors dumb down so much that they underestimate the reader?
GJ: Yes. On investigations, I’d be with Mirror readers all day – working class people – and they’d say ‘I used to read The Mirror but I don’t any more, there’s nothing in it’. It’s all celebrity stuff and skateboarding parrots. Saying ‘there’s nothing in it’, that’s shorthand for ‘it’s full of shit’. It’s because we had all these psychopaths in charge – and posh people! They were clueless. If you’re sat in a silver, billion-pound building in Canary Wharf, and there’s a bank on top of you and a bank below you, you aren’t going to know what a Mirror reader wants in Bradford. They bet the farm [on celebrity stories] and they lost. It’s all gone. You couldn’t sell a story to The Mirror now, because they don’t even buy stories.
It was an unnatural relationship [between readers and journalists]. They weren’t ‘readers’, they were ‘punters’. In editorial conferences, no-one would ever say ‘do you think the readers would like that?’ It was just about what your boss might like. In that sense, we had contempt for the readers.
If tabloid newspapers had stuck to what they were doing, there wouldn’t be any Alain de Botton, there wouldn’t be any Jamie Oliver, and there wouldn’t be any Ross Kemp. Alain de Botton popularises something that only you [an Oxford graduate] will have studied, in your oak-panelled lecture rooms, but the peasants haven’t been told about it! He popularises it for someone like me! And they’ve turned themselves into journalists, because there’s a gap in the market.
The Mirror sacked John Pilger, and stopped doing serious stories. Now you’ve got Ross Kemp who fills an investigative role, and does it very well. Jamie Oliver does an investigation into school meals and parents are in uproar at mobile chippies at the school gates. I tried to do that when I was at the Sunday Mirror [but they didn’t want to know]. And you’ve got Alain de Botton telling you about Ancient Greece with his ‘Philosopher’s Mail’! So when Piers Morgan fucked up and said ‘instead of writing about all these great things, we’ll write about Big Brother’, he let all these people into the market! Ross Kemp, Jamie Oliver, and Alain de Botton are great mass communicators. That should be our job!
DT: What was the worst thing you saw as a tabloid reporter?
GJ: That’s like asking a member of a Colombian death squad what the worst massacre they were involved in was! You can’t remember all the bad things you’ve done, never mind what anyone else has done! There were some terrible things, though. I remember hearing about when someone committed suicide, and a cheer went up [in the newsroom], because they’d driven him to it [by accusing the man of being a paedophile].
There were some terrible things going on. And you’re psychologically equipped to do it...
DT: And when everyone around you is doing it as well, its hard to be the one…
GJ: … who stops it, yeah.
You do go along with it. At the end of the day, you’re a functionary. I do what needs to be done, and go back to my family and say I’m a success. It’s all about money, and status, and status anxiety.
DT: Talking to you now, it is clear you think this culture is awful. So what was going through your mind when you were part of it?
GJ: It’s ambition. You’re driven by an extremist level of ambition. You’re brainwashed. And you want to keep your job. You’ve got that constant fear inside of you.
DT: Where’s the news media headed?
GJ: I don’t know. All I know is that I’m a dinosaur. The stories I do cost a lot of money, and they take a long time. But I also know that if you’ve got a good story, you can always sell it to someone. But I don’t know about the [business] model.
We need a diverse variety of people in the news media. We can’t have 50 percent of people in senior positions having been to private school.
DT: What future plans do you have?
GJ: I think staying sane is a good one. Staying out of jail is another one. And to write more books. Oh, and to finish my community service. Every Friday I have to go to a park in Lewisham and sweep up leaves. It’s great, I get to meet some good contacts, get some good stories, and serve the common good. And reflect on my redemption…
UPDATED 11.55AM MAY 12TH 2015